Back In The Ussr...

Is Russian President Vladimir Putin using a recent string of devastating terrorist attacks as an excuse for tightening his grip on power? This week, Putin proposed placing strict controls over the election of governors and parliamentary deputies. If the proposals go through, as expected, governors who are now popularly elected would instead be nominated by the Kremlin and approved by local legislatures. And grassroots candidates to Russia's lower house of Parliament, who now provide most of the few dissenting voices in government, would be ineligible to run. "Under current conditions, the system of executive power in the country should not just be adapted to operating in crisis situations, but should be radically restructured in order to strengthen the unity of the country and prevent further crises," said Putin. "Those who inspire, organize and carry out terrorist acts seek to bring about a disintegration of the country, to break up the state, to ruin Russia."

The sweeping changes elicited little protest from governors or Duma members. REGIONAL LEADERS HAIL PUTIN'S LATEST MOVES AS PANACEA FOR ALL RUSSIA'S ILLS, read a headline from the Russian TASS news agency. And even Washington's response was muted. In his most pointed comment so far, President George W. Bush warned Russia obliquely at a campaign stop yesterday that, "as governments fight the enemies of democracy, they must uphold the principles of democracy." But many Moscow-based analysts, even those who have fervently supported Putin in the past, voiced strong criticism. Stanislav Belkovsky, an influential political consultant, wrote in the newspaper Vedomosti that Putin "has just made his greatest mistake since taking office." Others said it amounted to a return to the days of the USSR. NEWSWEEK asked Stephen Sestanovich, special adviser to the U.S. Secretary of State for the new independent states under President Clinton and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, to weigh in.

NEWSWEEK: What are the main reasons behind Putin's political reforms?

Stephen Sestanovich: Is that what you're calling them? I call them "repressive measures." He's pulled out old proposals for increasing the Kremlin's political control that have virtually nothing to do with terrorism. He wants to end the popular election of governors, because he wants to make sure that no governor gets elected on an anti-Putin platform. He also wants to show he's doing something to try to deal with the threat of terrorism, and so he's sent his most trusted advisor [Dmitri Kozak] to be head of the North Caucasus political administration. He and his advisors just began to talk about creating a single institution that would deal with security in the Russian state and creating special groups to patrol the Caucasus and respond to terrorist difficulties. Some of these measures might have a weak connection to terrorism. Others have no connection whatsoever. His big problem is--he doesn't have any idea really about how to deal with a problem that is now taking on the dimensions of a national emergency. It's not just Beslan or the airliners or the bombing at the metro station. It's a pattern of regular attacks over the past year that have made it plain that terrorist organizations can strike in Russia at will. And that is a catastrophe for someone who has presented himself to the Russian people as able to preserve order. Whatever his other faults, he offered an escape from what many people saw as the disorder of the 1990s. And it's clear he hasn't done even that.

But he has at least succeeded in providing some measure of economic stability. He has benefited from high oil prices, but those prices have not provided Russian economic growth with a strong foundation. More importantly, he's found himself criticized on all sides for not being able to protect Russia against attacks that are increasingly bold and destructive.

How much does that criticism matter? It seems that, with these new changes, public opinion is growing less relevant in Russia.

We're gonna find out. Putin has been able against all criticism to say--and this is a pretty powerful argument in any political system, "I've got astronomic approval ratings." But now those approval ratings are looking shakier. Even before the terrorist attacks there had been a drop in his public support. And this, plus the picture of incompetence that his government has shown in dealing with the terrorism problem, have emboldened critics. You now have even Putin's supporters raising questions about what he's doing and whether he has a plan.

Why hasn't Russia been able to do a better job of preventing terror attacks?

A government that is as corrupt, whose institutions are as rotten as those of Russia's security apparatus, can't actually protect itself against terrorist who are tying to neutralize it. All of the speculation after the airplane bombings was that the bombs had gotten onto the plane through some kind of corrupt inside job. A second line is that Putin has banked totally on the effectiveness of brutal military power in subduing Chechnya without reconsidering the ability of the terrorists to strike outside the republic.

Do you expect Putin to follow up his political reforms with sweeping changes in the Federal Security Service [FSB] and other intelligence and military agencies?

He has announced a unification and streamlining of existing institutions. Certainly those institutions need an overhaul. The coercive apparatus of the old Soviet state exists today in Russia almost completely unreformed. The only change is it's more corrupt and even easier for criminals to control. Putin, as an alum of this establishment surely understands some of its problems. But as an alum he may also be blind to some of them. We're going to find out whether he has the understanding and skill to remake them in a way that will actually turn them into an effective tool against terrorism.

Why haven't even the governors criticized his changes?

Putin had a rather clever combination of ideas. He proposed to the governments that they would no longer be popularly elected. But he also offered to relax the term limits that would have removed a number of them from office in the next several years. What he said, in effect, is: "You can stay on if you get on my good side." So it's no surprise that you find governors stepping forward and saying, "Yes, sir."

Do you see the measures as moving Russia back toward the days of the USSR?

It doesn't involve a return of Soviet ideology, except in so far as that ideology was about state control. But while it may involve less repression than the Soviet state, it offers many more growth opportunities for corruption and personal enrichment. That's why some Russian critics are speaking of it as more of a move into the third world, implying that by comparison the Soviet Union was a kind of modern structure. What Putin seems to want to do in their eyes is make himself a little more like [Indonesia's] General Suharto than Leonid Brezhnev.

Why has the United States' response so far been so muted?

It's probably that the administration has very little confidence that it could have any real effect on Putin. The relationship has run down over the past couple of years. And the influence that Washington has over what happens in Moscow is much less. It may be that there is also a certain residual affection for a respect for Putin. But my sense is that personal confidence in him isn't what it used to be.

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