Russia's President Vladimir Putin says electoral reforms he is proposing are needed to fight terrorism after an attack by Chechen rebels in which hundreds died.
Last month, Chechen separatists attacked a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, and took more than 1,100 people hostage. The three-day standoff ended in a battle between the Chechen rebels and Russian security forces. More than 330 people were killed, half of them children.
Responding to that attack, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced sweeping changes to the country's electoral system. Mr. Putin wants to appoint the country's 89 regional governors. They are currently elected. And Mr. Putin wants all members of the lower house of parliament, the Duma, to be elected proportionally from party lists. Half of the Duma representatives are now elected by popular vote. The Russian president said the new political measures are needed to fight terrorism and increase security throughout the country. The Moscow News newspaper commented that "Russia is the first country in history to fight terrorism by scrapping democratic elections."
Many Russia experts in the United States question the link between fighting terrorism and tightening voting procedures. They say Mr. Putin's proposals had been discussed in political circles for several months, and he only used the Beslan tragedy as a pretext to announce them officially.
One of those experts is Peter Reddaway, who has been writing about Russia for many years.
"A lot of the commentary in Russia since he did that, and almost all of the independent commentary, has been along the lines that these changes will not increase security; more likely they will decrease it, because the Russian state is already over-centralized," said Peter Reddaway. "And as we know in this country, unless you have local authorities able to respond flexibly and quickly, using their own initiative, you are not likely to have a very good defense against terrorist activity. And Mr. Putin is going in the exact opposite direction."
Since the end of the Soviet Union 13 years ago, Chechen separatists have increased their efforts to gain an independent homeland. As prime minister in President Boris Yeltsin's government, Mr. Putin sent troops into Chechnya in 1999. And he was elected president four years ago on the promise of restoring order in that troubled region.
But that hasn't happened. In the past few years, Chechen rebels have stepped up their terrorist attacks in their fight against Russian authorities and the Beslan tragedy is the latest example.
President Putin seeks to depict Russia's fight against Chechen separatists in the context of the global war on terrorism as defined by President George Bush.
Stephen Cohen, professor of Russian history at New York University, says right after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, Russia provided invaluable assistance.
"Russia did more to help the United States win, or what appeared to be, win the ground war in Afghanistan with very few casualties, than any country in the world including the NATO countries," said Stephen Cohen. "It was Russia that gave the United States essential intelligence, which Russia had because of its own involvement in Afghanistan. It was Russia that gave the United States the fighting force known as "the Northern Alliance", the Afghan resistance force, which Russia had trained, which Russia had armed for its own purposes. It gave it to the United States and in fact the Northern Alliance did most of the actual ground combat fighting, saving the United States casualties, and it was Russia that agreed that American aircraft could not only overfly Russia but could base itself in the former Soviet Union territories in Central Asia temporarily. This was of enormous help."
During the first U.S. presidential debate between President George Bush and Senator John Kerry, Mr. Bush said President Putin continues to be a strong ally in the war on terrorism.
But Professor Cohen, along with other experts, says after Afghanistan, the U.S.-Russia partnership against terrorism has been primarily rhetorical.
Celeste Wallander, a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (in Washington DC), says it is hard to point to specific Russian policies or successes that have contributed to the campaign against terrorism.
"There are problems in sharing intelligence, partly on the American side, but very much on the Russian side because of the atmosphere of mistrust of foreign intelligence and foreigners in general that has grown under President Putin," said Celeste Wallander. "The Russian security services are themselves struggling with being effective against terrorism in their own country, so they are really hobbled in their ability to be effective partners with the United States in combating terrorism. And the war in Iraq soured relations for some time, although that has been patched over."
The experts also point out that the United States and Russia are fighting two different kinds of terrorism.
They say Washington is fighting a worldwide terrorism whose aim is to bring down the United States and western civilization and there is no one to negotiate an end to that terrorism. On the other hand, experts say the terrorism facing Russia is tied to a specific problem: Chechnya. Experts say there could be a negotiated end to that kind of terrorism.