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September 19, 2004
DARK AGE

Putin Gambles on Raw Power


Mirko Ilic
By STEVEN LEE MYERS

MOSCOW Countries react differently to terror. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Americans rallied behind their government of their own free will. After the Madrid train bombings last March, Spaniards ousted theirs. President Vladimir V. Putin took steps last week that seem to ensure that Russians will do neither.

After modern Russia's worst terrorist act - the horrifying seizure of a school that ended with more than 300 hostages dead - Mr. Putin ordered an overhaul of the political system, stripping Russians of their right to elect their governors and district representatives in Parliament. Mr. Putin's response seemed like a non sequitur, since how the country conducts its elections on the regional level has little, if anything, to do with fighting the terrorism that war in Chechnya has spawned. But there was a logic to it, at least for Mr. Putin and his supporters, and it was one that dashed - perhaps decisively - hopes here and abroad that Russia had left behind its long, tortured history of authoritarianism when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Democracy, Mr. Putin suggested in remarks after the school siege, does not result in stability, but rather instability. It does not unify, but rather divides. The principal threat posed by democracy in Russia today, he made clear on separate occasions in the last two weeks, lies in simmering ethnic and religious tensions along the rim of Russia where ethnically non-Russian people live. That division, he suggested, can only be controlled with an iron hand from above.

The attack on the school in Beslan was a watershed in a country that has had its share of them in history. And to Mr. Putin's critics, it confirmed their fears that, instinctively, he puts his faith in the Kremlin's unquestioned authority as the force to hold Russia together.

In the tragic arc of Russian history, it has always been so - even if, in the end, the rigid power of the center has always failed.

A theme of those who accepted Mr. Putin's prescription was distrust of the unruliness of electoral will in a country with deep ethnic, social, class and religious divisions.

It was those divisions that the fighters who seized the school - terrorists loyal to the Chechen separatist commander Shamil Basayev - seemed eager to stoke when they struck in multiethnic North Ossetia.

They seemed well aware that what Russia has failed to do in more than 13 years of post-Soviet politics is develop a sense of national identity that might overcome those divisions. Indeed, in the southern and Asian areas where Russia's Muslim groups live, an ardent religious identification is threatening to take its place.

"We live in conditions of aggravated internal conflicts and interethnic conflicts that before were harshly suppressed by the governing ideology," Mr. Putin said the night after the siege in Beslan ended on Sept. 3. In his speech, he lamented the demise of "a huge, great country," the Soviet Union, and rued the forces of disorder that its dissolution unleashed in Russia.

He returned to the theme four days later when he met with a group of American and European academics and analysts. Media accounts afterward focused on his pointed rebuff of calls to negotiate with Chechnya's separatists, whom he equated with Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. More telling about his plans to come was his reference to an obscure electoral dispute in Karachayevo-Cherkessia, one of the troubled republics of the North Caucasus.

In 1999, a disputed presidential election split the republic's two main ethnic groups, the Karachai and the Cherkess. As Mr. Putin recounted it, only his intervention - as prime minister, at the time - averted a civil war.

Clifford Kupchan, vice president of the Nixon Center in Washington, attended the meeting with Mr. Putin, and summarized Mr. Putin's dark view of democracy as "one man, one vote, one war."

"Given that Russia is not a melting pot, but rather a fragmented pot," Mr. Kupchan said in an interview, "he does not believe that democracy is the solution."

As he has before, Mr. Putin insisted last week that Russia remained on a democratic course, but he did so more reservedly than ever. When he announced his political overhaul on Monday, he said, "we must also, of course, react adequately to everything happening within the country."

In the turbulent years since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia's embrace of democracy - and Mr. Putin's - has always been awkward.

The country's Constitution, written in 1993 after President Boris N. Yeltsin ordered the shelling of Parliament to roust defiant legislators, codifies basic democratic freedoms. In practice, though, democracy has been treated as little more than a license for a well-positioned few to steal and loot the old Soviet assets and to exploit Russians' baser instincts, especially when it comes to ethnic minorities.

Grigory A. Yavlinsky, one of the country's most prominent liberals, said the public's concept of democracy had been tainted by financial scandals and crises, by the consolidation of wealth in the hands of a few well-connected billionaires, by a decade of war in Chechnya, and lately by a wave of terrorist attacks, staged not in symbols of grandeur like skyscrapers and government buildings, but in places chillingly familiar to virtually every Russian: trains, subways, airplanes, a theater and, worst, a school.

"All this period of time was called democracy," Mr. Yavlinsky said in an interview. "The people looked at it and said, 'If that is democracy, then, thank you very much.' " But he added, angrily: "All these things had nothing in common with democracy. It was Potemkin democracy."

During his presidency, Mr. Putin has shown little enthusiasm for the democratic experience. He has smothered political opponents, wrested control of independent television and manipulated the outcome of regional elections, none more so than the two presidential elections in Chechnya, where loyalists were elected by Soviet-like margins last October and again last month, after credible challengers were struck from the ballots.

Still, until Monday, Mr. Putin had never before reversed the fundamental democratic right of representation through the ballot - a right enshrined in the Constitution's letter and spirit, according to his critics. Under his proposal, which the Parliament will almost certainly adopt since it is dominated by parties loyal to him, Mr. Putin will appoint governors, presidents or other leaders who are now elected in each of country's 89 regions. Mr. Putin's proposals also would eliminate the district elections that choose half of the 450 seats in Parliament; instead, they will be selected based on national party lists drafted in Moscow in close consultation with Mr. Putin's Kremlin.

What was striking last week was how many Russian elected officials heartily endorsed Mr. Putin's plan.

"Elections are often dirty, with money from the shadow economy and criminal groups trying to influence the results," Valentina I. Matviyenko, the governor of St. Petersburg, told Itar-Tass on Wednesday as she fell into line behind a proposal that would deny her much of her electoral legitimacy and political authority. (She was elected last fall and, apparently, knew whereof she spoke.) "All this causes concern and alarm."

Her counterpart, Murat M. Zyazikov, president of the semi-autonomous republic of Ingushetia, who was elected with the Kremlin's help, echoed her fears. In a telephone interview, he said that elections had turned into "competitions between people with more money, which resulted in tensions in society."

"Western and human values are very close to us, but we have our own way of development," he said. "I think this was done in order to consolidate society."

In other words, it would seem, "the people have spoken" remains a phrase that strikes fear in Russia's ruling elite, which presumes to know better what is better for the country.

"It is soft Stalinism," Mr. Yavlinsky said.

He and others have spoken out against Mr. Putin's reordering, but they have done so from the margins. A rally organized by Mr. Yavlinsky's Yabloko party - with posters of Mr. Putin as Hitler - drew a handful of protesters. A few of the 15 independent members of Parliament voiced objections and then admitted there was little they could do to stop Mr. Putin.

The most prominent criticism came from the two men who, arguably, did much to create the system Russia has today, for better or worse. In twinned essays that appeared on Friday in the newsweekly Moskovskiye Novosti, Mr. Yeltsin and Mikhail S. Gorbachev wrote that Russia should preserve the democratic gains of the last 13 years.

"Strangling freedoms and curtailing democratic rights," Mr. Yeltsin wrote, "marks, among other things, the victory of terrorists."


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