If there were any doubts as to whether President Vladimir Putin intends to make good on his pledges to restore order and Russia's reputation as a world power, they are quickly being dispelled. But some critics say such gains may come at the expense of the country's moves toward democracy.
In the latest example, Mr. Putin is said to be ready to declare direct Kremlin rule over Chechnya, a move that will mean security forces, rather than civilian administrators, remain in charge of the rebellious Caucasus republic.
"It seems that power in Chechnya will come out of the barrel of a gun for the foreseeable future," says Alexander Konovalov, director of the independent Institute of Strategic Assessments in Moscow. "In many areas now we see Putin attacking complex problems with a single answer: more centralization and stronger Kremlin power."
Less than a month after his inauguration as the country's second elected president, Putin is revealing himself as a man in a hurry to make sweeping changes to the economy and political system. But critics warn his changes may lead back toward a long tradition of authoritarian rule rather than apply fresh democratic approaches to the country's deep and intractable ills.
Last week, Putin ordered Russia divided into seven administrative zones, each run by a presidential appointee. Of the seven men chosen to fill the positions, five are from the military or security forces. Gen. Viktor Kazantsev, who until recently commanded Moscow's troops in Chechnya, will oversee the North Caucasus administrative district where the republic is located.
A battery of draft laws before the Kremlin-friendly Duma, the lower house of parliament, would give Putin unprecedented power to fire any of the country's 89 elected regional governors. Governors also would be barred from their current seats in parliament's upper chamber.
And in a cost-saving move strongly criticized by environmental groups, the president disbanded Russia's only federal environmental agency last week, transferring its responsibilities to the Natural Resources Ministry. Greenpeace said the ministry has a history of approving "illegal and environmentally hazardous projects."
Putin launched the latest military invasion of Chechnya in September, shortly after he was named prime minister by former President Boris Yeltsin. He has vowed not to repeat the mistakes of the 1994-1996 Chechen conflict, which ended in a humiliating withdrawal of Russian forces.
While other regions will retain their elected legislatures and governors, the plan for Chechnya now under consideration will involve a form of emergency rule for at least two years. "We are discussing a model for direct administration over Chechnya, to fit within the general new model of federal government in the whole country," says Pavel Krasheninnikov, chief of the Duma's legislative committee.
Supporters say it is the only way to restore constitutional order to the devastated republic, as well as to rebuild its infrastructure, reopen schools, pay pensions, and get public transport running again.
"It's necessary that life be brought back to normal in Chechnya," Putin said on Monday. "People should see a clear demonstration by the central authorities that they will not be left to the mercy of fate."
Such statements appeal to the Russian public. After a decade of political drift, disorder, and economic decline, many Russians appear ready to embrace tougher government if it can deliver greater social security and even a touch of economic prosperity. In a survey earlier this month by VTsIOM, Russia's largest independent polling agency, 81 percent of respondents said they were ready to sacrifice personal freedoms for more order in the country.
But critics say the direct-rule plan is a clear sign the Kremlin has no idea of a political solution. "The war in Chechnya is far from over, it will go on for years," says Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent military analyst in Moscow. "A law on direct rule will only cast a blanket of legal legitimacy over the perpetual counterinsurgency."
Mr. Felgenhauer notes that in the past week, the Russian military has seen its highest casualties in months. "The Chechens are preparing counterattacks that will show, once again, that the Army simply cannot contain this situation. Moscow is in no position to reliably control the territory of Chechnya, much less design a working government for it."
The Kremlin appears to have dismissed the options of setting up a dialogue with legitimate Chechen leaders, such as elected President Aslan Maskhadov, or installing a provisional, pro-Moscow Chechen government.
"This is not on the agenda anytime soon," says Emil Pain, a onetime adviser on ethnic policy to Mr. Yeltsin. "The level of distrust is growing on both sides. It's very hard to see how any serious Chechen forces could get involved in a pro-Russian administration at this point."
Experts say the Kremlin is turning to the most extreme solution because it lacks any political vision for the war-torn region and because it fears offending the powerful military. "Putin is trying to escape reality by handing Chechnya to the generals," says Alexander Iskanderyan, director of the independent Center for Caucasian Studies in Moscow. "The military will be happy with this, but they will not solve anything there in two years, or 20 years."
Some even warn the Chechnya scheme is a harbinger of how the Kremlin intends to deal with all of Russia's fractious republics and regions. "Direct rule for Chechnya is in character with Putin's plan for the whole country, which he has already said is direct Kremlin rule everywhere," says Felgenhauer.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society