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US Concerned by Putin Moves to Strengthen Powers - 2004-09-14

The United States expressed concern Tuesday about steps by Russian President Vladimir Putin to strengthen Kremlin power following recent terrorist attacks, including the school siege in North Ossetia.

U.S. officials are stressing their support for Russia in the struggle against terrorism, but at the same time voicing misgivings about some of the steps Mr. Putin has announced to deal with the recent terror attacks in that country, including the Beslan school takeover that left more than 300 people dead.

At a special session of cabinet and security officials in Moscow Monday, the Russian president called for creation of a powerful anti-terror agency, along with measures that would strengthen Kremlin powers by, among other things, ending the popular election of regional governors.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher reiterated the United States's solidarity with Russia in the fight against terrorism. But he said the measures announced by Mr. Putin "certainly raise concerns," and that the Bush administration looks forward to discussing them with Russian officials.

"Nothing justifies the sort of horrible terrorist actions that occurred last week in Russia and we reiterate our condolences to the Russian people and stand ready to work with Russia in the fight against terrorism," he said. "We are studying the actions that were announced by President Putin yesterday. We look forward to these conversations with the Russians. It is important, as the Secretary [Powell] has said before, to strike the right balance between fighting terrorism, but also moving forward on democratic reforms and the democratic process."

The Putin plan would do away with the direct election of governors in favor of a system under which they would be nominated by the president and confirmed by local legislators.

Mr. Putin also called for eliminating individual races that now fill half the seats in the lower house of the national parliament, the State Duma, in favor of having the house filled by political parties on a proportional basis.

The Russian leader said his plan would strengthen and streamline the executive branch to make it more capable of combating terror. But critics are calling it a blow to democracy, and warn that Mr. Putin's reliance on centralized control could further isolate those in power from the people they rule.

In his remarks here, Mr. Boucher said democratic reform in Russia is "a fundamental issue that has to be faced" and one, which the United States has discussed and will continue to discuss with the Russians.

He pointed to a commentary by Secretary of State Colin Powell in the Russian newspaper Izvestia in January in which the secretary, on a visit to Moscow, said the U.S.-Russian relationship would "not achieve its potential" unless the two countries shared basic principles.

Mr. Powell said Russia's democratic system seemed not yet to have found "the essential balance" among the executive, legislative and judicial branches and that political power was "not yet tethered to law."

The secretary said in the same front-page article that "certain aspects" of Russian policy in Chechnya, and toward neighboring states that emerged from the Soviet Union, also were of concern to Washington.

Since the spate of recent terror attacks attributed to Chechens, the United States has said it still supports a political solution to the Chechnya conflict, adding that no political cause can justify the taking of innocent lives.