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Russia: Putin's Recent Political Reforms Face Little Opposition  - 2004-10-07

Russian President Vladimir Putin has recently announced major changes to the country's electoral system. President Putin's proposals are aimed at two political groups: the country's governors and members of the lower house of parliament, the Duma.

The Russian president wants to do away with freely elected regional leaders. Instead, his plan is to appoint the country's 89 governors. As for the Duma, Mr. Putin wants to have all the 450 members elected from party lists. Now half of them are elected directly by popular vote. But that will end, if parliament approves those proposals.

Many Russia experts say Mr. Putin's proposals centralize power in the hands of the presidency and remind them of the Soviet election system abolished more than a decade ago. Mr. Putin says they are needed to tighten security and fight terrorism, after more than 330 people, most of them children, were killed by Chechen separatists last month in Beslan, in North Ossetia.

Russia's 89 governors have voiced very little opposition to Mr. Putin's proposed changes.

Peter Reddaway, a Russia specialist at George Washington University, says their lack of opposition stems from selfish political reasons and a sense of self-preservation.

"If they don't kick up a lot of fuss, if they accept these reforms, they will, in fact - most of them - will be appointed by Putin and therefore will continue in their present jobs, although, of course, from now on, it would be subject to the pleasure of the president," he said. "So that's my prediction as to what will happen when the law has been passed, that some - a few, probably - will be replaced by Putin, but my guess is not very many, and the rest will simply be appointed by him to continue in their present jobs."

Experts say leaders of Russia's democratic parties have also muted their criticism of President Putin's proposed changes.

Stephen Cohen, a Professor of Russian history at New York University, says some of Russia's prominent democrats are not resisting because they know they are in part responsible for the undemocratic changes unfolding in the country.

"That is, these are people who supported Russian President Yeltsin, the first post-communist president of Russia when, for example, he used tanks in 1993 against an elected parliament," he said. "Surely that opened the door to the end of democracy. It's almost unprecedented in history, for an executive to use tank cannons to blow away an elected parliament. It was an extraordinarily fateful and fatefully bad episode in Russian political history. And yet, overwhelmingly at the time, the people who call themselves democrats and who would then head self-described democratic parties in parliament after 1993 supported that act. They also supported privatization as it occurred, which was clearly not only undemocratic, but eroded popular support for democracy."

That view is echoed by Celeste Wallander, a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She says one of the problems with democratic politicians in Russia, is that they have always been seen as critics of the government while offering few plausible alternatives.

"The Russian public is, not surprisingly, tired of hearing about complaining and problems in their system," she said. "They want some answers and they seem to be willing to give President Putin a little more time to give them some answers."

Russia experts say, ironically, the only organized political force with any clout in the country that is fighting the rollback of democracy is the Communist Party.

"The Communists have been on the side of democratic reform in Russia for a long time," said Michael McFaul, who is with the Hoover Institution. "And folks in the Kremlin have used the communist bogeyman [terrifying person] to say why they needed to be crushed, when in fact when you look - I don't agree with their policies, but democracy is not about policies. Democracy is about procedures and procedurally, the communist party has been an advocate for democratic procedures for some time now."

Experts say if President Putin continues to propose undemocratic reforms and they are passed by parliament, even the Communist Party will have fewer and fewer opportunities to resist.