Invoking Terror Threat, Putin Tightens Grip on Power

By Sergei Blagov | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Moscow ( - Following a series of deadly attacks by Muslim terrorists, Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered a far-ranging review of the country's political policies, but critics see the move as simply consolidating the Kremlin's power.

Russia needed to build a strong and united state, Putin told a special meeting of his cabinet and 89 regional governors Monday.

Nearly 500 Russians were killed in the Beslan school hostage siege, a Moscow suicide bombing and the downing of two passenger aircraft.

Putin announced radical changes to the national electoral system, saying these would help Russia to combat terrorism more effectively.

Lawmakers in the lower house of parliament would from now on be elected exclusively from party lists. Currently, half of the 450 seats in the Duma are elected from party lists while the rest come from single-mandate local constituencies.

Abolishing the single-mandate districts would make the political system more efficient, he argued.

Putin also said that local governors would from now on be nominated by the president, rather than be elected by popular vote.

"I believe that the top officials of the constituents of the Russian Federation must be elected by the legislative assemblies of territories after being nominated by the head of state," he said.

Critics see the moves as boosting Kremlin control and further undermining parliamentary independence.

Putin complained that Russia had "achieved practically no visible results in our fight against terror," and said the terrorist challenge called for new measures.

"A number of countries which had to face the terrorist threat have created special services responsible for the complex work to ensure internal security and the struggle against terrorism," he said. "We also need to have a similar organization."

Moscow is to re-establish a Ministry of Regional and National Policies, an agency focusing on regional development. The ministry, headed in the 1920s by a young Joseph Stalin before he became Soviet dictator, was abolished by former President Boris Yeltsin in 1998.

Putin also announced the creation of a new Federal Commission for the North Caucasus, whose mission, he said, was to improve conditions in that region which lagged behind the rest of the country.

Poor economic conditions in Chechnya and Dagestan had helped terrorist recruitment, he said.

The proposed changes will require parliamentary approval and in some cases amendments to the constitution. Putin called on the State Duma to draw up the required legislation by the end of the year.

Some politicians voiced support for Putin's sweeping changes. Notably, Mentimir Shaimiyev, president of the republic of Tatarstan, seemed willing to relinquish his right to be elected by his own people. Tatarstan is a member state of the Russian Federation, but one whose relations with the center are governed by a special treaty.

But reformist politicians questioned whether the new measures would help in the battle against terror. Independent lawmaker Vladimir Ryzhkov told the NTV television channel that the proposals "have nothing to do with the security" suggesting that the Kremlin was taking advantage of the situation to bolster its position.

Authoritarianism could not help security, but would only increase corruption, said Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the liberal Yabloko party.

"Under these proposals, the Kremlin will accumulate even greater power at the expense of participatory democracy and the already enfeebled governors," the Moscow Times said in an editorial.

"It looks very much like the Kremlin's damage control strategy is to be centered around making regional leaders the scapegoats for recent failures, thereby minimizing the responsibility that should properly be assumed by the central authorities," it said.

The U.S.-based independent intelligence analysis firm, Stratfor, said Putin's maneuvering would have little effect on the security situation and was "nothing short of a personal coup by the president against the institutions of the Russian state."

Putin's policy proposals come at a time the U.S. has stressed its support for Moscow in its struggle against terrorism.

President Bush on Sunday paid a surprise visit to the Russian Embassy in Washington to sign a book of condolence for the victims of the Beslan siege.

"The United States stands side-by-side with Russia as we fight off terrorism," he said.

A group calling itself the Islambouli Brigades says it has called on its cells throughout Russia "to launch a destructive war."

The group has claimed responsibility for the bombing of two Russian airliners on August 24 and an August 31 suicide bombing outside a subway station in Moscow. It denied involvement in the Beslan attack, which cost 336 lives.

Researchers suggest that the group is named after Khaled Islambouli, the leader of a group that assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981.

The group's earlier claim that it was responsible for an assassination attempt on Pakistani Prime Minister-designate Shawkat Aziz on July 31 were never confirmed by Islamabad.

The Islambouli Brigades' existence is yet to be independently confirmed.

Russian officials say the country has become a target for "international" terrorists.

After the Beslan tragedy, authorities said 10 of the dead hostage-takers were "Arabs" although no evidence has been released.

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( Pacific Rim Bureau Chief Patrick Goodenough contributed to this report.)