(COX NEWS) MOSCOW — In the wake of a series of terrorist attacks that have claimed hundreds of lives and revealed the dubious state of Russia’s security forces, President Vladimir Putin announced a radical overhaul of the country’s political system that critics in Russia and abroad condemned as an assault on democracy.
But the question is: Do Russians care? In a fearful country wary of attacks after the massacre of schoolchildren in Beslan, Putin’s plan to exert more central control over Russia’s legislative branch and the country’s vast regions has provoked little popular dissent.
Putin has steadily tightened his grip on power in Russia’s young democracy since former President Boris Yeltsin appointed him as successor in 1999 and he won election a year later. Through it all, Putin’s popularity among voters has soared. In May, 70 percent of voters re-elected him for a second term.
Throughout its long history of tsars and communist dictators, Russian leaders have been icons. The authoritative ways of Putin, a former KGB officer who will turn 52 on Oct. 1, are seen by many as an attribute of a “real, strong Russian man” who is leading the nation through troubled times 13 years after the Soviet Union crumbled.
“I trust him and don’t blame him for anything that is wrong with our country, including Beslan,” said Valentina Lutseva, 60, a kindergarten teacher in central Moscow. “He has always stood for democracy and I believe he won’t give up on this idea. I think democracy exists in Russia. Everyone has possibility to work or study. It’s up to them. That’s democracy, isn’t it?”
The proposed changes, which the Kremlin said would unite the country in the anti-terror fight, would end the popular vote for 89 regional governors. The 450-seat Duma, as the lower house of parliament is called, would be elected on national party lists, doing away with 225 individual seats.
Putin’s proposals seem to have everything to do with gaining more personal power, and very little to do with fighting the war against terrorism, Russian opposition politicians and some analysts said.
“What we are seeing here is the process of ‘Sovietization,'” said Olga Khrishtanovskaya, a sociologist at the Russian Academy of Sciences. “The Kremlin is trying to take society under its control and restructure it along Soviet lines.”
Even President Bush, who said he had “looked into the soul” of Putin during their first meeting and remained largely silent on the Russian president’s authoritative tendencies, said last week he was concerned “about the decisions that are being made in Russia that could undermine democracy in Russia.”
Bush’s critical comment and a similar remark a day earlier by Secretary of State Colin Powell marked a distinct change in tone. Previously, the administration had voiced support for Putin’s Russia, which Bush has long considered an ally in the global war on terror.
In reply to the criticism, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov essentially told the Bush administration to mind it own business, saying that the proposed reforms “are our domestic affair.”
Putin curtailed the regional governors’ powers in his first four years by dismissing them from the upper house of parliament. To keep close Kremlin watch on their activities, he then appointed seven regional representatives to oversee the governors.
Meanwhile, the government steadily silenced independent media, prompting newspapers and TV stations to adhere to the government’s line or risk being put out of business.
Last December’s parliamentary elections were marred by the Kremlin’s heavy hand in the state-controlled media, which gave more airtime to the pro-Putin parties during the campaign. Pro-Kremlin parties won control of two-thirds of the Duma seats, clearing the way for approval of any proposal Putin presents.
Putin also has waged a war with the so-called oligarchs, arresting Russia’s richest man and a potential political rival, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and charging his oil company, Yukos, with more the $7 billion in overdue back taxes.
The recent attacks blamed on Chechen separatists have posed Putin with his biggest challenge yet as he enters his fifth year of office.
More than 325 children and adults died in Beslan earlier this month after armed militants raided a school and took 1,200 hostages in a three-day standoff. In the days before the Sept. 1 hostage-taking, two planes crashed almost simultaneously after taking off from a busy Moscow airport, killing 90, and a suicide bomber blew herself up outside of a Moscow metro station, claiming another 10 victims.
Russia has fought a brutal, decade-long war against Islamic separatists seeking independence for the southern republic of Chechnya. Putin has denied claims by some analysts that the increase in terrorism stems from a failure in his policy in Chechnya.
Despite calls from the West to open talks with separatist leaders, Putin has reiterated that Russia will not negotiate.
In a national address shortly after the Beslan hostage siege, Putin said corruption in the military and law enforcement agencies was to blame for many of the country’s problems, even giving a mechanism for terrorists to operate.
The top federal prosecutor, Vladimir Ustinov, said that bribery have been involved in the case of the two downed airliners with evidence that an airline official accepted money to allow one of two suicide bombers to board one of the aircraft.
The Putin proposal that regional governors be appointed rather than elected may be an attempt to create a line of responsibility that runs directly to the Kremlin, said political analyst Sergie Markov, who has close ties to the Kremlin.
Russians like their leaders strong and just as statues of Lenin were once erected in every Soviet city square, offices and living rooms across the country proudly display portraits of Putin.
“Experience shows that Russia is either under a monarchy or is in anarchy,” said Alexei Muhin, a political analyst with the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow. “Under Yeltsin we had an anarchic democracy. Under Putin we have a managed democracy.”