In the aftermath of a wave of terror attacks, President Vladimir Putin yesterday announced fundamental political changes that will further concentrate power in the Kremlin and erode Russia's fragile democracy.
Critics say the measures - couched as a strengthening of central government to combat terrorism - will do little to enhance public security, are aimed at broadening the Kremlin's grip on Russia's far-flung regions, and may ultimately weaken Mr. Putin's rule.
"Now it's absolutely clear, Putin wants to use this opportunity to destroy the last vestiges of Yeltsin-era democracy," says Alexander Golts, a national security expert with the weekly Yezhenedelny Zhurnal. "Instead of attacking terrorists, he's attacking our electoral system."
In an address yesterday, Putin said he would introduce a law to effectively end the direct election of governors in Russia's 89 regions. Instead, he said, Kremlin-nominated candidates would be "endorsed" by local legislatures. Further changes to the State Duma will eliminate local constituency races that currently fill half the Duma's 450 seats, in favor of electing the entire parliament by using centrally compiled national party lists.
"The organizers and perpetrators of the terror attacks are aiming at the disintegration of the state, the breakup of Russia," Putin said. "The fight against terrorism should become a national task."
The moves come as Russia reels from the Beslan school siege and other attacks, which killed more than 430 Russians in just three weeks. Bowing to public pressure, Putin on Friday approved an inquiry into the events of the hostage drama.
The political changes have long been circulating among Russia's political elite, says Liliya Shevtsova, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, but their implementation has been "accelerated" by the Beslan tragedy.
"[Putin] apparently believes this is the most effective way of dealing with Russia's problems of terror and insecurity - it fits his ideology of authoritarian modernization," says Ms. Shevtsova.
But there is also a dangerous drawback, she says: "It undermines Putin's presidency because he will be responsible for all the mistakes of the sorry guys he has appointed. It undermines the system."
The pro-Kremlin United Russia Party enjoys a two-thirds majority in the Duma, already sufficient to initiate changes to the Constitution. Eliminating the often unpredictable local constituency contests will sharply reduce the number of independent deputies who find their way into the Duma, and strengthen the electoral hand of a few Moscow-based giants, chiefly the state-backed United Russia.
"People say Putin wants to create an American-style two-party system, which would increase stability in a huge and volatile country like Russia," says Sergei Strokan, a political expert who writes for the liberal daily Kommersant. "But the problem is that Russia lacks any developed, independent political parties. The state already dominates the political field."
Some experts argue that increased Kremlin authority, while curtailing democracy, might be necessary to fight Russia's endemic official laxity and corruption. "Increasing direct Kremlin control is a logical step dictated by the dangerous weakness of our state structures," says Vitaly Naumkin, director of the independent Center for Strategic and International Studies in Moscow. "Our state will become more authoritarian, but stronger. This will certainly be welcomed by the public."
But a five-minute call-in poll on the Ekho Moskvy radio station yesterday found a majority against one of Putin's major changes. Of 3,807 people who responded, 75 percent were for the direct election of regional governors.
Putin also proposed creating a new body, called the Public Chamber, not unlike the US Department of Homeland Security. "We need a single organization capable of not only dealing with terror attacks but also working to avert them, [to] destroy criminals in their hideouts and, if necessary, abroad," Putin said.
Some critics are concerned that security forces might interpret the task as reconstituting Stalin-era networks of informers. "The idea of a public watchdog organization sounds good in principle, but what kind of popular participation will it be?" asks Mr. Strokan. "If this job is handed to the bureaucrats, we will see the task of fighting terrorism mutate into total social control."
Since the Beslan tragedy, the Kremlin has been subject to unaccustomed questioning by Russians over the loss of life to terror. Only one week ago, Putin refused to conduct a public inquiry into the school siege, saying such a probe would be unproductive, and amount to nothing more than a "political show."
But on Friday - in an apparent rare step of accountability - Putin approved an inquiry, though it will be led by a Putin loyalist.
"This is not a response to terrorism," says Andrei Kolesnikov, a political observer with the Rossiskaya Gazeta newspaper. "They have been looking for some pretext to carry out their long-thought-over plans. Other steps might follow to justify three presidential terms. The purpose is to make [Putin's] 'vertical power' more vertical still."