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Wednesday, September 15, 2004

The New York Times > International > Europe > News Analysis: From Those Putin Would Weaken, Praise

The New York Times > International > Europe > News Analysis: From Those Putin Would Weaken, Praise: "September 15, 2004
From Those Putin Would Weaken, Praise

MOSCOW, Sept. 14 - On Monday, President Vladimir V. Putin announced he would strip Russia's 89 regions of much of their authority and electoral legitimacy. On Tuesday, not one of the leaders of those regions said a public word of protest.

On the contrary, there were words of praise.

"It is constructive and productive," Murat M. Zyazikov, the president of Ingushetia, said in a telephone interview, embracing a proposal that would leave him serving at the will not of his impoverished electorate in southern Russia, but of the president in faraway Moscow.

If there were any lingering doubts about Mr. Putin's grip on power, the reaction to his sweeping proposal to overhaul Russia's political system - replacing, for instance, the election of governors, presidents and other regional leaders with presidential appointments - swept them away.

A headline in the newspaper Izvestia called it the "September Revolution," equating Mr. Putin's consolidation of power to this country's most famous October, almost 87 years ago. And yet the second day of the revolution passed with barely a murmur of protest, even among those affected most.

In Washington, however, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said that "we have concerns" about Mr. Putin's actions, and that he planned to ask Russian officials to explain the moves. [Page A10.]

"The president demonstrated political will," Dmitri F. Ayatskov, governor of Saratov Oblast, in the southeast, said at a news conference, according to a statement issued by his office. "An end will be put to various demonstrations of extremism - religious, political and other."

In theory, in a democracy, the leaders of Russia's regions, representing myriad blocs of voters of all classes and ethnicities across Russia, would constitute a potent political force, one that could challenge even a powerful federal center.

In reality, Mr. Putin simply formalized the Kremlin's already immense sway over regional leaders, which critics said on Tuesday has been sustained by the power of purse and perks, coupled with an element of fear.

"Any governor understands that if he is against Putin, he will be under criminal investigation," Vladimir A. Ryzhkov, a liberal member of Parliament, said in a telephone interview. He cited cases involving the governors of Kursk, Yaroslavl and Atlai, who all faced investigations that, coincidentally or not, began after they challenged Kremlin policies. "The main thing is fear," he said. "They are afraid of everything."

In outlining his program, his first legislative proposals since the wave of terrorist violence that has roiled Russia, Mr. Putin said the country needed political unity in order to withstand the threats facing it.

And he made clear that in his view, unity would be accomplished best by giving him the power to appoint regional leaders, leaving local parliaments merely the power to ratify his choices. Although the legislative details remain unwritten, recent experience would suggest few regional bodies would dare buck the Kremlin.

Mr. Putin did more than upend the country's still evolving experiment with electoral democracy. With his proposals, he also resolved many of the still-unanswered questions about the distribution of power between the federal and state levels. Not unexpectedly, perhaps, he came down on the side of what is called here the "vertical of power," whose most prominent, most dominant feature is the man at the top, Mr. Putin.

Or as Gov. Vyacheslav Y. Pozgalev of Vologda put it to one of the state's television networks, First Channel: "Executive power must be whole."

Mr. Putin's proposals would also shift legislative politics toward the center, where power has been through much of Russia's history. He said he would eliminate the district elections that now fill half of the 450 seats in the Duma, the lower house of Parliament. Instead, the Parliament would be elected proportionately, based on party lists compiled by the main parties, all centered in Moscow and all susceptible to Kremlin influence.

After parliamentary elections in December, only four parties won blocs of seats. The largest, by far, was United Russia, the party defined almost entirely by its fealty to Mr. Putin. United Russia, along with the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party and Motherland, control nearly 400 seats and follow the Kremlin's lead without hesitation. The Communist Party, the only meaningful opposition, holds only 51 seats, making it a mere remnant of the force it was even in the early post-Soviet period.

Still, there were some voices of dissent on Tuesday. Mr. Ryzhkov and two members of United Russia elected from local districts, Aleksandr Y. Khinshtein and Konstantin F. Zatulin, appeared at a news conference to criticize the parliamentary proposal, though not, they emphasized, Mr. Putin himself.

"Even during Stalin's time, even during Soviet times, all deputies were formally elected," Mr. Zatulin said. "It allowed concrete people to solve concrete problems. This is a return to czarist times."

Others accused Mr. Putin of exploiting the horrific events at Middle School No. 1 in Beslan, in North Ossetia, where at least 300 hostages died in the violent end of the siege by a band of separatists. "I think he wanted to do this before," said Boris E. Nemtsov, a leader of the Union of Right Forces, a liberal party that fell into disarray after failing to win seats in Parliament. "But now this is a very good opportunity, after this disaster, because people will accept it."

Indeed, it is a measure of Mr. Putin's power over all branches of government that few people expressed hope for a political or legal challenge to his proposals, even though some argued that the changes would be unconstitutional. Simply by being proposed, it seems, the changes will become law.

"We are coming to the point where we have no checks and balances, no democratic and peaceful way to balance power," Leonid N. Dobrokhotov, an adviser to the Communist Party, said in a telephone interview. "The only thing left is absolute prostration."

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