Taming Chechnya, Russia Too ; President Putin Is Expected to Impose Direct Rule, Further Centralizing Power

Article excerpt

If there were any doubts as to whether President Vladimir Putin intends to make good on his pledges to restore order and Russia's reputation as a world power, they are quickly being dispelled. But some critics say such gains may come at the expense of the country's moves toward democracy.

In the latest example, Mr. Putin is said to be ready to declare direct Kremlin rule over Chechnya, a move that will mean security forces, rather than civilian administrators, remain in charge of the rebellious Caucasus republic.

"It seems that power in Chechnya will come out of the barrel of a gun for the foreseeable future," says Alexander Konovalov, director of the independent Institute of Strategic Assessments in Moscow. "In many areas now we see Putin attacking complex problems with a single answer: more centralization and stronger Kremlin power."

Less than a month after his inauguration as the country's second elected president, Putin is revealing himself as a man in a hurry to make sweeping changes to the economy and political system. But critics warn his changes may lead back toward a long tradition of authoritarian rule rather than apply fresh democratic approaches to the country's deep and intractable ills.

Last week, Putin ordered Russia divided into seven administrative zones, each run by a presidential appointee. Of the seven men chosen to fill the positions, five are from the military or security forces. Gen. Viktor Kazantsev, who until recently commanded Moscow's troops in Chechnya, will oversee the North Caucasus administrative district where the republic is located.

A battery of draft laws before the Kremlin-friendly Duma, the lower house of parliament, would give Putin unprecedented power to fire any of the country's 89 elected regional governors. Governors also would be barred from their current seats in parliament's upper chamber.

And in a cost-saving move strongly criticized by environmental groups, the president disbanded Russia's only federal environmental agency last week, transferring its responsibilities to the Natural Resources Ministry. Greenpeace said the ministry has a history of approving "illegal and environmentally hazardous projects."

Putin launched the latest military invasion of Chechnya in September, shortly after he was named prime minister by former President Boris Yeltsin. He has vowed not to repeat the mistakes of the 1994-1996 Chechen conflict, which ended in a humiliating withdrawal of Russian forces.

While other regions will retain their elected legislatures and governors, the plan for Chechnya now under consideration will involve a form of emergency rule for at least two years. "We are discussing a model for direct administration over Chechnya, to fit within the general new model of federal government in the whole country," says Pavel Krasheninnikov, chief of the Duma's legislative committee.

Supporters say it is the only way to restore constitutional order to the devastated republic, as well as to rebuild its infrastructure, reopen schools, pay pensions, and get public transport running again. …