Putin Uses Chechens' Attacks to Boost His Own Power

Article excerpt

David R. Sands is a writer with The Washington Times.

Five years ago, an obscure former KGB officer named Vladimir Putin came to power in the Kremlin, promising a sharp response to a string of terrorist attacks blamed on separatist Muslim rebels from Chechnya. A recent string of terrorist attacks blamed on Chechen rebels cleared the way for Putin to consolidate his hold on power in Russia in a way not seen since the dying days of the Soviet Union.

The Russian leader's response to the bloody hostage drama at a school in Beslan, the culmination of a string of terrorist strikes that have killed more than 430 since mid-August, "certainly fits into the pattern we've seen throughout his rule," said Nikolay Petrov, a scholar in residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center and a former adviser to the Russian government in the mid-1990s. "When confronted with a crisis, his first instinct is always to concentrate more power in his own hands," Petrov said.

Putin's immense country embraces some immense contradictions. Even in its shrunken post-Soviet state, Russia remains the world's second- leading nuclear power behind the United States and recently passed Saudi Arabia as the world's biggest oil exporter. It has a veto at the UN Security Council, a seat at the table of the elite Group of Eight, and a direct interest in conflicts stretching from southeastern Europe to northwestern Asia.

But in other ways, Russia is a shadow superpower--with a middling economy, a strapped and ill-equipped military, and a political culture that domestic and foreign critics fear is slipping further and further away from Western democratic standards.

Even as the dead were being buried in Beslan, Putin called for sweeping changes in Russia's electoral system, demanding the right to appoint the governors of Russia's 89 federal regions, now elected directly by voters. Putin would also abolish direct election for representatives to the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament already controlled by parties loyal to the Kremlin.

Putin justified the moves as part of a drive to improve the efficiency of the state and to head off ethnic and religious clashes that he said threaten to undermine the unity of the Russian Federation. In a September 4 address to the nation, Putin said the government "failed to react appropriately" to the challenges of terrorism and social division. "We displayed weakness, and the weak are beaten," he said.

The Bush administration has tried to walk a fine line on Putin, who forged a strong personal tie to President Bush in the days after the September 11 attacks.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in an interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times in September, said, "We understand the need to go after these kinds of murderers and terrorists."

But, he added, "at the same time, we felt it was important to say to our Russian friends--not as anything but a friend--that as you deal with this kind of terrorist threat, you have to be careful that you don't do it in a way that starts to undercut democratic institutions."

Russia's embattled pro-Western political voices have been much more outspoken. Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, head of a Moscow- based democratic opposition group called Committee 2008-Free Choice, accused the president of a "constitutional coup."

"It is completely clear that the measures the president is insisting on have nothing to do with the fight against world terrorism," Kasparov said. "Vladimir Putin is proposing formally to consolidate an authoritarian regime, which is not in the least capable of either providing security for Russian citizens or guaranteeing the integrity of the Russian state," he said.

Mikhail Gorbachev, who presided over the death of the Soviet Union and the chaotic birth of the Russian Federation, sharply criticized Putin's recent moves in a commentary in a Moscow newspaper last week. …