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Last Updated: Monday, 13 September 2004, 18:07 GMT 19:07 UK
Analysis: Putin's drastic measures
By Bridget Kendall
BBC diplomatic correspondent in Moscow

"We cannot speak about Beslan, or even think about it, without tears coming to our eyes," Russian President Vladimir Putin told his cabinet.

Vladimir Putin
President Putin has long talked of strengthening central authority

"But it is not enough for the government to offer tears and words of support.... We have achieved practically no visible results in our fight against terror," he went on.

"First and foremost we have failed to eliminate the source of terror."

His message to an emergency gathering, which included governors and leaders of Russia's dozens of republics and provinces, was that only a tighter grip from the centre - from the Kremlin in Moscow - would foil those whose goal he claimed was nothing less than to force the country's disintegration.

"Those who inspire, organise and carry out these acts of terror," he said, "want the country to disintegrate, the government to collapse and Russia to be destroyed."

His audience listened grim-faced or took notes in silence as he laid out not just security measures, but also a sweeping political reform that - if agreed by Russia's parliament - would affect them and their potential re-election directly.

"I propose," he said, "that top officials [like regional governors] should be approved locally, but only once they've been nominated by the head of state, like the way cabinet ministers are appointed."

It is an idea which, if implemented, could increase the Kremlin's influence on Russia's local politics dramatically.

'Authoritarian tendency'

A good comparison, perhaps, is to think of the furore in the United States if President George W Bush were to announce that - in the interests of fighting terrorism - he wanted from now on to decide on candidates to run for the governorship of, say, California.

Mourners in Beslan
Hundreds of casualties of the Beslan siege were buried last week
Russia is not America, of course. And ever since he came to office, Mr Putin has talked about the need to improve the "vertical levers of power" as he calls them, to make Russia stronger.

This has been the leitmotif of his presidency.

He appears to believe that in the Yeltsin years too much autonomy was given to regions, and from this flowed the chaos and anarchic tendencies that left the country's economy floundering.

"It's all part of Mr Putin's authoritarian tendency," observed one Moscow commentator gloomily.

For the liberal intelligentsia who fear Russia is moving slowly away from pluralism and free speech, the announced reforms are yet another sign that their president puts government control ahead of full democracy.

Opposition expected

But this is a controversial plan, and it could yet be amended.

Plane wreckage near Rostov
Bombs are believed to have downed two Russian jets in August

Mr Putin said he wanted the national parliament, Russia's Duma, to draw up legislation on it by the end of the year.

And there may well be objections from some quarters.

Think of the republic of Tatarstan, a member state of the Russian federation, but whose relations with the centre are governed by a special treaty.

It is hard to imagine Tatarstan's wily president giving up his right to be elected by his own people without a struggle.

But the biggest question though is will all this help to stop the terrorism?

After all, it is not just the Beslan siege that Russia is reeling from.

Top priority

In the last few weeks, there has been a stream of attacks, including two planes that exploded in midair - apparently two suicide bombs timed to go off simultaneously.

Overall at least 430 people have died in the last month - a death toll that is likely to rise as the final figures for Beslan are calculated.

So far Russia's security overhauls, including more police on the streets, have not stopped new attacks.

And stopping terrorism is, understandably, for most Russians the top priority.

So Mr Putin is under pressure to think more broadly and take more radical measures.

And drastic times, argues the Kremlin, require drastic measures. Mr Putin's hope is that most people in Russia agree with him.

Those who do not agree with him, however, point out that more political control from the top may not make Russia easier to govern.

On the contrary, it will simply make it more bureaucratic and more corrupt.

And that may mean it becomes a weaker state, not a stronger one.




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