Putin's power play.

What the foreign papers are saying.
Sept. 16 2004 2:40 PM

Putin's Power Play

Has the Russian president quashed democracy in the name of homeland security?

On Monday Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the biggest shake-up of Russia's political system since its 1993 adoption of a post-Soviet constitution, drawing heaps of scorn from both the Russian and international press. Britain's Financial Timessaid Putin "took a chainsaw to the fragile roots of Russian democracy," while the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita frankly opined, "Farewell, democracy." (Translation via Deutsche Welle radio.) In Russia itself, a feisty press has voiced alarm. "In what country are we going to wake up tomorrow?" the mass-market Komsomolskaya asked. (Russian translation via South China Morning Post.)

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Putin's changes, put forward as a response to the Beslan terror attack that killed more than 330 people, are nothing short of drastic. Concentrating power in the Kremlin, they essentially redefine the meaning of the word "federation." All 89 of Moscow's regional governors will now be appointed by the president—that is, Putin—and then approved by local assemblies, rather than directly elected. Translated into American political parlance, this would be something like the president announcing that the states would no longer elect their governors and that instead the president would simply appoint them, subject to the approval of state legislatures.

Putin's announcement sparked a diplomatic tit-for-tat. The following day, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told Reuters, "In effect this is pulling back on some of the democratic reforms. We have concerns about it and we want to discuss them with the Russians." Moscow, in no mood for discussion, bluntly told the United States to butt out. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the changes "our internal affair" and responded directly to Powell. "[I]t is at least strange that, while talking about a certain 'pulling back' … [Powell] tried to assert yet one more time the thought that democracy can only be copied from someone's model." Lavrov then made an implicit jab at George Bush's contested 2000 win in Florida. "We, for our part, do not comment on the US system of presidential elections, for instance." Bush himself jumped into the fray on Wednesday, saying, "As governments fight the enemies of democracy, they must uphold the principles of democracy. … I'm ... concerned about the decisions that are being made in Russia that could undermine democracy."

Putin has also decided to end the direct election of representatives to the Duma, or parliament, by local constituencies. Instead, seats will be apportioned entirely according to the electoral success of each party, which in effect means blocking smaller parties from the national political stage. (To draw another rough parallel, this would be akin to doing away with district-by-district representation in the U.S. House of Representatives.) The Moscow Times wrote that the changes "will effectively stop the rise of a strong parliamentary opposition."

Putin calls this an abrupt change from the previous system, but many papers beg to differ, saying the scheme looks more like a logical extension of reforms Putin carried out during his first term. The Financial Times quoted an analyst saying, diplomatically, that Putin's scheme "does not correspond to Russia's federal structure." More pointedly, the FT wrote that Putin's plans for an integrated "internal security system" "rais[es] the spectre of the re-creation of the former Soviet-era KGB internal police." Britain's left-leaning Guardian, on the other hand, said Putin was merely hinting at "a Russian version of the US homeland security department." The Guardian also seemed quick to point out that "[t]he changes would not make [Putin] a dictator … since he still valued his invitations to the Group of Eight industrialised countries." In a statement that begged for further elaboration, the paper added that Russian authorities are "too corrupt to be authoritarian."

A 100,000-strong demonstration on Moscow's Vasilyevsky Slope on Tuesday reminded the Russian daily Kommersant of official demonstrations in the Soviet era. "Call everybody to [the] slope," the paper mocked. (Translation via Prime-Tass.) A commentary in the Moscow Times called Putin's reforms "morally blasphemous, legally illiterate and politically devastating," adding, "Many, if not all, of his legislative innovations and his neologisms point to the fact that psychologically Putin is firmly located in the golden age of the Soviet Union." It's worth pointing out that in the Soviet era, the Kremlin would hardly have suffered such dissent. On the other hand, multiple reports of journalists covering the Beslan tragedy being drugged by authorities cannot but set off alarm bells.

Many have drawn parallels between 9/11 and Beslan, but on the three-year anniversary of the attacks on America, a comment in the liberal Russian weekly Novoye Vremyasuggested one substantial difference. "President Bush is still answering for the weakness of the security agencies," the paper said, but in Russia, "our leaders, as always, answer for nothing." (Translation via BBC Monitoring.)

Scott MacMillan is a freelance journalist who lives in Cairo.

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