Putin Seeks to Increase Power, Citing Effort to Fight Terror

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Los Angeles Times

September 13, 2004

MOSCOW (AP) -- Responding to a series of deadly terror attacks, President Vladimir Putin on Monday moved to significantly strengthen the Kremlin's grip on power, with new measures that include the naming of regional governors and an overhaul of the electoral system.

Putin told Cabinet members and security officials who convened in special session that the future of Russia was at stake, and he called for the creation of a central, powerful anti-terror agency.

``The organizers and perpetrators of the terror attack are aiming at the disintegration of the state, the breakup of Russia,'' he said. ``We need a single organization capable of not only dealing with terror attacks but also working to avert them, destroy criminals in their hideouts, and if necessary, abroad.''

Putin's declaration followed a series of stunning terror attacks blamed on Chechen rebels, climaxing in the three-day school seizure in southern Russia in which more than 330 people were killed.

Although Putin has been criticized for strengthening his own powers in the past, three weeks of violence and the deaths of 430 people have led to increased support among the Russian people for measures to combat terrorism.

Putin identified the Caucasus region, of which Chechnya is part, as a ``springboard'' of terrorism. He named one of his closest confidants, Cabinet chief of staff Dmitry Kozak, to represent him in the southern district that includes the Caucasus.

Announcing electoral changes that would give the already dominant pro-Kremlin faction in parliament even greater power, he proposed a purely proportional voting system that would eliminate the individual races that now fill half the seats in the State Duma.

Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of the few opposition deputies in the State Duma, scorned the president's political proposals and said if they were approved, ``the next Duma will be simply virtual, it will consist of just marionette party lists and won't enjoy any authority.''

``How is it possible the president doesn't understand that it won't strengthen the country, it will further tear apart the unity of the country and tear federal organs' power away from the people?'' he told Ekho Moskvy radio. ``Yes, the Kremlin's authority will be strengthened, but the country will be weakened.''

Putin, who has already cut deeply into the powers of regional governors, also said he would introduce legislation that allows him to nominate the governors, who are currently elected. The move appeared to signal he was intent on eliminating any vestiges of the governors' autonomy.

Sergei Markov, a political analyst with close ties to the Kremlin, said the president's move against the governors could help curb corruption that has flourished in some regions.

``At the same time, it means ... a lowering of (their) general political authority and a serious lowering of political pluralism,'' Markov told Ekho Moskvy.

Putin said official corruption that had helped terrorists -- such as the issuing of documents ``leading to grave consequences,'' should be punished with particular severity.

He also signaled that a government crackdown on Islamic groups could be in the cards, proposing that extremist organizations serving as a cover for terrorists should be outlawed.

A new structure called the Public Chamber would strengthen public oversight of the government and the actions of law enforcement agencies, he said. The chamber would involve non-governmental organizations and other groups in the fight against terror.

Over the weekend, Putin ordered the dismissal of the interior minister in North Ossetia, where the school siege took place, and the firing of the regional head of the Federal Security Service -- the agency that is supposed to spearhead anti-terrorist efforts. Those moves followed a meeting with his Security Council on Sunday.

Putin said Monday that terrorism is rooted in the low living standards in the North Caucasus, in widespread unemployment and in poor education.

``This is a rich fertile ground for the growth of extremist propaganda and the recruitment of new supporters of terror,'' Putin said. ``The North Caucasus is a key strategic region for Russia. It is a victim of terrorism and also a springboard for it.''