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Putin Announces Plan to Centralize Government

September 14, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: The brutal school siege in Beslan that left more than 300 dead shook Russians to the core. Coming after a string of terrorist attacks on civilians around the country, it prompted a strong and stunning response yesterday from President Putin.

In an emergency session in Moscow yesterday, Putin met with cabinet ministers and regional governors and moved to overhaul the political system, greatly centralizing authority, all in the name of national security.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN (Translated): The fight against terrorism demands a deep reshaping of our policies in the region.

One of the main, most important issues is the weakness of state executive powers.

RAY SUAREZ: Each of Russia’s 89 regions has a governor, chosen in popular elections to serve four-year terms. But under Putin’s plan, the president would nominate the governors, and they’d be confirmed by local legislatures.

For the lower house of the national parliament, the Duma, Putin proposed all 450 seats would be selected by national party slates. That would eliminate district races that now decide half of the Duma’s makeup, and are often won by opposition parties.

The proposed changes would have to be approved by the parliament, now overwhelmingly controlled by Putin allies. Anti-Putin legislators and pro-democracy groups sharply criticized the president’s proposals. But many governors endorsed them.

Secretary of State Powell warned the plan could take Russia off the path to democracy.

He told Reuters: “We understand the need to fight against terrorism, but in an attempt to go after terrorists, I think one has to strike a proper balance to make sure that you don’t move in a direction that takes you away from the democratic reforms or the democratic process.”

RAY SUAREZ: Now, two views on President Putin’s proposed reforms. Michael McFaul is an associate professor of political science at Stanford University.

And Dimitri Simes is president of the Nixon Center, a Washington think tank. He was born in Russia, and is now a U.S. citizen.

RAY SUAREZ: Dimitri Simes, let’s start with you. Why these changes and why now?

DIMITRI SIMES: Well, I think that Putin was moving in the direction for quite some time. He clearly feels that in order to change things in Russia, and he’s got a sense of mission he wants to change things, you need to have real power — not a performer power granted by the Russian constitution, but real power.

And the governors today – they are heavily influenced by the Kremlin — but there is no line authority. The Kremlin cannot tell them what to do. And you have seen how in Beslan during the tragedy they sent federal security forces but yet there was a local governor who was formally in charge.

As a result, nobody was truly responsible. If you’re talking about so-called independent legislators, most of them are not democrats, most of them are people connected with provincial corrupt structures and their presence in legislature adds little to Russian democracy.

And Putin clearly wants to do the things but the crisis, the tragedy in Beslan gave him both an impulse and an excuse.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael McFaul, do you accept that rationale for this move by the president?

MICHAEL McFAUL: Well, I think that’s what President Putin thinks that he is doing — right — I genuinely believe that he thinks that these reforms will help him to strengthen the state of Russia.

I just disagree with the strategy. I don’t see how these particular reforms are going to make it any easier for him to combat terrorism. What does an election after all that’s going to take place in 2007 to change the electoral law for that body, the parliament, how in God’s name is that going to help him fight terrorism today?

I just don’t see the relationship between the two of those things, and therefore I think he’s taking advantage of this terrible tragedy in Beslan to do these kinds of political reforms that he was thinking about doing after all.

RAY SUAREZ: So the next Duma election, just to be clear for this reformulated Duma, wasn’t to be until ’07 anyway?

MICHAEL McFAUL: Well, it’s not until 2007, and let’s just remember this Duma that’s already sitting in place, Mr. Putin already has two thirds majority there anyway.

So why are we talking about reforming the parliament when we should, he should be fighting, talking about reforming his state to make it more effective in combating terrorism?

I’m just skeptical that these things are going to help him. Think about on Sept. 11, when we had our tragedy and terrorist strike, I’m glad that there were people on the ground, an elected mayor of New York City, an elected mayor of, governor of the state that felt a connection to those people and responded.

You didn’t see that in Beslan, and I think this notion that somehow centralizing power makes the state more effective is just not empirically true.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Dimitri Simes, what about that, the idea of taking the voters out of the equation and making government more effective at the local level?

DIMITRI SIMES: I think that Michael is right. You need to have legitimate local government. But they don’t have legitimate local government in Russia.

If would you look at Beslan, if you would look at the whole government of North Ossetia, it is run by a former Soviet party official, former Soviet diplomat who is part of the old power structure. Yes, he was elected, but, make no mistake, in fact he was appointed.

But the situation was created when in fact they appoint the governors, that’s why these people who were in the room with Putin who was talking about eliminating their elect status and yet they applauded him because they do not have the guts to challenge him. But at the same time, the Kremlin has no responsibility for them.

The Kremlin has power without responsibility. Putin wants to concentrate the decision making in the Kremlin. I think it makes a lot of sense. Where I agree with Mike, however, is that taken alone it’s grossly insufficient.

I think that under current Russian conditions where corruption is perverse, where local mayors and governors are frequently associated with criminal gangs, I think if Putin wants to change something, he needs to put himself in charge first. The buck should stop with him and he’s trying to do it.

But also, and here Mike and I may agree, I think you have to have other reforms to start creating legitimate civil society. You should give local mayors, real mayors more power, and you also should have a struggle against corruption. Those reforms were promised by Putin, but he did not begin to implement them yet.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, today, Sergei Mitrokhin, one of the leaders in one of the opposition parties called this the beginning of a constitutional coups d’ etat, a step toward dictatorship.

Does this response run the risk of being that?

MICHAEL McFAUL: I most certainly interpret this as steps away from democracy and not the first two steps, by the way, this is in a pattern under Mr. Putin.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s now a dictatorship. No, the formal institutions of democracy are still in place.

But I don’t — it’s moving in the wrong direction, and frankly I don’t understand why Putin wants to do this because just because you’re appointing a governor, why is that going to make them more subservient to you? How in any way is that going to fight corruption?

After all, they’ve had 70 years experience of that in the Soviet Union with tons of corruption with appointed regional officials, and the one guy, in my opinion, who showed leadership in Beslan during the tragedy was Gen. Aushev who was an elected regional leader who was ousted and pushed out by the Kremlin because he was deemed too independent.

He showed real leadership because he had some connection, I believe, to the local authorities. I just don’t see how this reform helps Putin.

Why would he want all the responsibility on his shoulders alone in the presidency?

DIMITRI SIMES: I’m impressed with Gen. Aushev – but actually he is not a part of North Ossetian government; he is from neighboring republic of Ingushetia and his presence was quite useful. But certainly he was not in charge and he couldn’t be in charge. More fundamentally, I think that you have to look at Russian specific circumstances. This is not a unclear democracy and they did not inherit a real democratic system from Boris Yeltsin.

They got inept, corrupt and cruel system. Putin decided in my view quite correctly to reform the system; he decided to take authority from political warlords called the governors and he decided to remove the oligarchs from power. The trouble is not what he’s doing. The trouble is what he is not doing. The trouble is not that he refuses to negotiate with Chechen separatists; I would not negotiate with those people also. The trouble is that the legitimate Chechen leaders who are perfectly willing to keep Chechnya inside Russia, some of them actually live in Moscow, but when these people want to run in Chechen elections, they have been disqualified because of some technicality.

How do you win over Chechen hearts and minds? The struggle against corruption, I have no problem when Putin is moving against corrupt oligarchs. The trouble is that he moves only against those who are opposed to his rule. And that obviously discredits the whole campaign. The problem is not what Putin is doing; the problem is what he’s not doing.

RAY SUAREZ: What about the American reaction, Professor McFaul?

MICHAEL McFAUL: Well, which one are you talking about: The one that Secretary of State Colin Powell did today or the one that the White House issued yesterday, where –

RAY SUAREZ: Are they that different, that you want to make a distinction?

MICHAEL McFAUL: Yes. In my view it would be nice if we had a common view how to talk about these things. Yesterday the White House issued a statement saying this is an internal matter for Russia, we don’t deal in the internal matters of countries.

Today we say this is alarming. The first and most important thing is that we have one common policy. My own view is let’s be honest here, let’s be frank. The United States is in no position to get on a lecture about democracy for Russia, and that will not have a positive influence on Mr. Putin.

But we should be consistent on our message to say that we believe that Russia is our ally in the global war on terrorism, and will be our stronger ally if it’s a democratic Russia; just a little consistency I think would go a long ways.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Dimitri Simes, do you think the American reaction was muted in part because of the blast that came from the Putin administration in the wake of the Beslan School massacre?

DIMITRI SIMES: I think it was muted for good reasons. First it was muted because it is only dissent after a tragedy like Russia experienced in Beslan — to be a little patient before offering political commentary on Russian internal developments.

I don’t think Americans would appreciate anybody’s guidance on how to conduct American, domestic affairs after Sept. 11. The same is true of the Russians.

The second problem is, as Mike said again, quite correctly, our leverage is very limited. Russia is no more a country asking for international loans; they have an enormous budget surplus because of high oil prices. It’s very difficult to pressure Putin to do what he doesn’t want to do.

But there is reason number three. Reason number three is that we really need Russia as a strategic partner. Just several months ago there was a plot to bring missiles from one of former Soviet republics inside the United States to shoot civilian airliners.

We were able to stop the plot because of an excellent cooperation between the CIA, FBI and Russian security agencies. It is difficult on one hand to criticize Putin and to expose the security agencies, and then to have this vital cooperation with them to protect American lives.

RAY SUAREZ: Let me get a quick response. Does the United States need Russia in quite that way?

MICHAEL McFAUL: We want to cooperate with Russia in fighting terrorists and controlling weapons of mass destruction, and to do that have you to deal with the Kremlin. But at the same time we can also foster democratic development within Russia. We can chew gum and walk at the same time, the United States, and here I go back to Ronald Reagan who I think was brilliant at this.

He dealt with the Soviets on arms control, he dealt with whoever was in power, but he also said but I’m not going to give up on human rights activists and those fighting for democracy because in the long run Russia will be a long stable ally of the United States if it’s a democratic ally.

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thank you both.