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Putin Seeks New Kremlin Powers to Counter Terrorism - 2004-09-13

In response to a series of deadly terror attacks in Russia in recent weeks, President Vladimir Putin has announced a number of proposed changes to Russia's political system. The initiatives, aimed at improving security, will also give a massive boost to the Kremlin's powers.

President Putin spoke at an extraordinary meeting of Russia's top security and military officials Monday, summoned in the wake of the bloody school hostage-taking in North Ossetia.

The president said Russia had failed to build a strong and united state, and he suggested the creation of a new federal agency to coordinate the fight against terror.

President Putin said that Russia needs a single organization capable of not only dealing with terror attacks, but also working to avert them. He said the new agency should have the authority to destroy criminals in their hideouts, and if necessary, abroad.

Mr. Putin said that central government control is the key to preventing terrorist attacks, and also ordered the country's security services to increase their international cooperation.

He suggested changing the elections to the country's powerful lower house of parliament, or the State Duma, to a purely proportional system, based on party lists. The move would eliminate the local constituencies that currently make up half of the 450 seats in the chamber. At the moment, the pro-Kremlin "Unity" party has an overwhelming majority in the Duma.

The Russian leader also called for regional governors, who sit in the upper house of parliament, to be elected by regional legislatures after being nominated by the president. At the moment, the people directly elect regional governors in Russia.

According to political analyst Masha Lipman at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow, President Putin's proposals fit a pattern.

"President Putin's policy throughout his time in office has been to weaken all democratic institutions, to concentrate a lot of power in the center, to make [the] presidency the most powerful, and actually the sole, decision maker in the country," she explained.

Still, Ms. Lipman says Russia must take some sort of action to end terrorist attacks. She says what remains to be seen is whether President Putin's proposals will be more effective than his efforts to tackle other problems.

"President Putin seems to be prepared to reform the state security bodies," she added. "However, the question is whether his reform will be reduced to a simple reshuffling, restructuring, or it will be the real serious dramatic reform that is required under the circumstances. And this is to do something about the corruption, about the incompetence, about the inefficiency. This is a tremendous challenge for President Putin and whether or not he is capable of it is an open question."

Mr. Putin's statement Monday came just days after some 430 people were killed in a series of terrorist attacks in Russia. In the worst incident, more than 300 people, about half of them children, were killed after gunmen seized a school in the town of Beslan in North Ossetia. There were also two airplane hijackings and a suicide bombing at a railway station.