Back to the U.S.S.R.
Vladimir Putin's announced changes to better secure Russia in the wake of the Beslan hostage tragedy work more to secure his own power than his country.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
How changing the country's electoral process can fortify Russia against more terrorist attacks is a head-scratching mystery. The only reasonable explanation for President Putin's plans to deprive voters of their right to directly elect regional governors and representatives in the national parliament lies in his pattern of power consolidation.
Since Putin became president in 2000, he has muzzled the independent media, shown the business oligarchs who is boss, reduced the powers of the regional governors, and marginalized his political opposition.
Now, for the sake of national "unity," the president says he must be the one to nominate the governors, who would no longer be elected by voters but confirmed by the local legislatures. At the same time, Putin wants to make all of the delegates in the national Duma electable from party lists. At present, half of them are elected directly by voters.
These moves will further concentrate power in the Kremlin, but they won't fill the gaping security gaps exposed by Beslan and the terrorist attacks that preceded it. Last month's downing of two Russian airplanes, for instance, points to the need to beef up airport screening, not change the way politicians are elected.
The Beslan massacre also highlights lax security and corruption at the Russian border, which was easily penetrated by the terrorists. And Russia's security forces, who did not even create a protective ring around the Beslan school to contain the crisis, surely need more training.
The other part of the terrorist equation is finding a political solution to the separatist province of Chechnya, but Putin will have none of that. "Why don't you meet Osama bin Laden, invite him to Brussels or to the White House, engage in talks, ask him what he wants and give it to him so he leaves you in peace?" Putin said to a group of Westerners last week.
But the understandably frustrated president errs in equating nationalist terrorists bent on independence with religious extremists seeking international cultural dominance. Northern Ireland proves it is possible to reach common ground with separatist movements, even very violent ones.
Putin may argue that centralization will enhance Russian security but the opposite is the more likely outcome. Authoritarianism breeds inefficiency, as people wait for decisions from the top to confront local problems. After the chaos of the Yeltsin years, Russians may, for a time, take comfort in a strong Kremlin. But Putin wrongly calculates that governing Soviet-style will secure Russia's future. With fewer voices in his own country able to tell him that, the US and Europe need to speak even louder.