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Putin moves to tighten Kremlin's grip on power in wake of terrorist attacks
MOSCOW (AP) - Responding to a spate of deadly terror attacks, President Vladimir Putin announced a series of anti-terror initiatives Monday that would strengthen the Kremlin's grip on every layer of Russian political life.
Putin told cabinet members and security officials convened in special session that the future of Russia is at stake, and called for creation of a powerful anti-terror agency.
"The organizers and perpetrators of the terror attack are aiming at the disintegration of the state, the breakup of Russia," he said. "We need a single organization capable of not only dealing with terror attacks but also working to avert them, destroy criminals in their hideouts and, if necessary, abroad."
Despite the plans for the new anti-terrorism agency, the proposals were short on security measures, focusing instead on electoral changes, including the elimination of popularly elected governors and an overhaul of the way Russians elect their parliament - a measure likely to increase the control of the dominant, pro-Kremlin faction.
Critics called the measures a blow to democracy, and warned that Putin's reliance on top-down control ultimately could weaken the country by driving those in power further from the citizens they rule.
Some critics also suggested that Putin's decision to focus on electoral changes was a sign he lacks practical ideas about protecting Russia after a string of stunning terror attacks blamed on Chechen rebels, climaxing in the school siege in southern Russia that killed more than 330 people.
Putin said he would propose legislation abolishing the election of local governors by popular vote. Instead they would be nominated by the president and confirmed by local legislatures - removing the last vestiges of local autonomy.
Putin explained his actions as necessary to streamline and strengthen the executive branch to make it more capable of combating terror.
But his critics immediately assailed the proposal as a self-destructive effort that could fuel dissent in the provinces.
"Today, all the power agencies that are supposed to fight terrorism are subordinated directly to the president . . . It's incomprehensible why, on top of that, he has to name governors," Sergei Mitrokhin, a leading member of the liberal Yabloko faction, told Russia's Ekho Moskvy radio. "It shows that the president doesn't know what to do. He's at a loss."
Since taking office in 1999, Putin has constantly worked to rein in independent-minded governors. He has already tossed them out of Russia's upper house of parliament and made them subservient to the seven regional envoys he appointed.
Sergei Markov, a political analyst with close ties to the Kremlin, said the president's move against the governors could help curb corruption that has flourished in some regions.
"At the same time, it means . . . a lowering of (their) general political authority and a serious lowering of political pluralism," Markov told Ekho Moskvy radio.
In another move aimed at strengthening the federal authorities, Putin recommended eliminating the individual races that now fill half of the seats in the national parliament and have the entire lower house filled by parties on a proportional basis.
Putin said that the move would help foster dialogue by expanding the clout of political parties, but his opponents warned that it would further increase the clout of the Kremlin-controlled factions that already have an overwhelming majority in the State Duma.
Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of the few opposition deputies in the State Duma, scorned the president's political proposals and said if they were approved, "the next Duma will be simply virtual, it will consist of just marionette party lists and won't enjoy any authority."
A new structure called the Public Chamber would strengthen public oversight of the government and the actions of law enforcement agencies, Putin said.
Although Putin has been criticized for strengthening his own powers in the past, three weeks of terrorist violence and the deaths of 430 people have led to increased support among the Russian people for measures to combat terrorism.
Putin said official corruption that had helped terrorists - such as the issuing of documents "leading to grave consequences" - should be punished with particular severity.
He also signalled that a government crackdown on Islamic groups may be coming, saying that organizations serving as a cover for terrorists should be outlawed.
Putin named one of his closest confidants, cabinet chief of staff Dmitry Kozak, to represent him in the southern district that includes the Caucasus.
The Russian president said that terrorism is rooted in the low living standards in the North Caucasus, in widespread unemployment and in poor education.
"This is a rich fertile ground for the growth of extremist propaganda and the recruitment of new supporters of terror," Putin said. "The north Caucasus is a key strategic region for Russia. It is a victim of terrorism and also a springboard for it."
Monday 13 September 2004, 19:11 Makka Time, 16:11 GMT
Separatist fighters in Chechnya have shot down a Russian combat helicopter, killing both crewmen, the Interfax news agency reports.
The Mi-24 was downed with a portable missile south of the regional capital Grozny, investigators said on Monday.
Large numbers of such missiles have made their way from old Soviet stockpiles to the fighters in Chechnya in recent years, and have often been used against Russian aircraft.
The worst incident to date is the destruction in 2002 of a troop-laden Mi-26 transport helicopter, resulting in the deaths of 115 people.
Stepping up fight
Meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin pledged on Monday to step up Russia's fight against separatists after the Beslan school siege.
"Terrorists must be annihilated in their dens and, if necessary, must be attacked abroad"
Vladimir Putin, Russian president
"Terrorists must be annihilated in their dens and, if necessary, must be attacked abroad," Putin told a government meeting in Moscow, echoing earlier threats by the military leadership to hit separatists' bases outside the country.
Russia routinely refers to Chechen separatists as terrorists.
Existing anti-terrorist measures "have not achieved required results in liquidating terrorism and its sources", he added.
The Russian leader also pledged to overhaul state policy towards the explosive North Caucasus region, where many attacks have taken place, and where fighters have prepared devastating attacks in other parts of Russia, including the capital.
In a major change to the Russian electoral system, Putin also has said heads and presidents of the country's 89 regions and republics will in future be appointed in Moscow rather than locally elected.
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