Georgie Anne Geyer

Putin's Announced Changes Smother Hope for Democracy

WASHINGTON -- First came the barbaric terrorist slaughter of 338 Russians in the small southern city of Beslan, with half of the dead children. For nearly two weeks, Vladimir Putin and his "security forces" Kremlin were largely, and strangely, silent.

Then came the deluge of changes, announced one after the other by President Putin who, it soon became clear, was finally empowered to put into place all the "takeover" moves he had so long been planning and working toward.

In his first step, he moved to destroy what was left of any democracy in the provinces: He ended the miserly 10 percent of gubernatorial elections that he had reluctantly left in place. Now all would be appointed by his Kremlin. Putin told the 89 governors that in the future they would be ratified by regional parliaments on the recommendation of the president as part of efforts to "strengthen the effectiveness of the authorities."

Next he moved to destroy what was left of the independence of the Duma, or parliament. Now its members would be elected solely on a party list basis, which gives him control, and the other half, elected until now by local constituencies, would be eliminated.

Then he called for an integrated "internal security" and anti-terror system, causing many to fear the re-creation of the Soviet-era KGB -- all in the name, of course, of fighting "terror."

In many ways, those steps, though unpalatable to democratically minded people in the West, were predictable. Since his rise to power at the end of the 1990s, Putin has, while talking democracy, been taking more and more power for himself.

There was even informed speculation that, when apartment buildings were blown up in his first years by "terrorists," Putin's own security forces could have done it to give him a public reason for stifling any opposition. But such accusations have never been proven.

But the additional steps announced last week -- actions little reported as yet in the United States -- were not expected by anyone, and they point to ominous new possibilities.

President Putin, in a meeting with foreign academics and journalists, said the post-Soviet states currently face "up to 2,000" potential ethno-religious conflicts within their borders, any one of which could explode "if we don't do anything about them" and "provide a flare-up instantaneously."

(Interestingly enough, in earlier speeches he had mentioned only 37 as the number of potential danger points.)

His point was that conflicts such as the Chechen one, which led to the heinous tragedy at Beslan, came about not because of any Russian or Soviet injustice to the Chechens and others, but because of the collapse of state power after the end of the Cold War in 1991.

Addressing the violence in the south, Putin told the group that "once the state became weaker, separation, which is very natural, was on the rise. It happened elsewhere. It happened here."

And in fact, the deeper involvement of "the center" in the troubled ethnic affairs of Russia immediately became apparent.

In the poor Russian region of Pskov southwest of St. Petersburg and near the Estonian border, police officials last week called upon citizens to use an anonymous phone line to report any information on "representatives of international terrorist organizations, members of band formations, and stockpiles of weapons and explosive devices."

As Paul Goble, the legendary Radio Free Europe analyst, reported from the area: "Such an approach, especially in places with ethnically divided populations but without past cases of terrorist activity, has the potential to create a witch hunt atmosphere in which members of different ethnic or religious groups turn on each other."

The fact that Pskov, while far from the troubled Caucasus of Beslan, is one of the poorest regions of the Russian Federation -- and has in recent years had a large influx of Muslim Chechens, Muslim Azerbaijanis and Christian Armenians -- indicates how deep Moscow's fear of the spread of ethnic terrorism can go.

But that's not all. For now we know the reason behind the sudden arrest of the enormously rich Mikhail Khodorkovsky, founder and head of the Yukos oil empire.

Putin has given the go-ahead to consolidate the state's control over the entire energy sector of Russia. He approved a plan to combine Russia's state oil company with the Kremlin-controlled natural-gas giant OAO Gazprom, which gives the government control over the vital energy industry and creates the world's largest energy company open to Western investment. It is fully expected, as Khodorkovsky withers in prison, that this new giant will acquire the Yukos assets.

All of this tells us that Vladimir Putin's Russia, far from trying to intelligently address real historical ethnic claims, is moving back to total central control. It will never be as cruel as the old Soviet Union, but the democratic hopes of 13 years ago are all but dead.

It tells us that Putin, far more than most Russians or foreign analysts, sees these conflicts as having a domino effect, with problems in one area able to charge others in faraway regions. And it tells us that his answer to them is to strengthen the country's transparently corrupt security services, rather than to reform them.

It tells us, too, to watch the character and psychology of the ancient Russian mind. For when Putin abolished that little remaining independence of the governorships, what did the elected governors do? They stood up and praised him, bringing back, albeit on a far smaller scale, the show trials of the 1930s when loyal Bolsheviks praised Stalin as he sent them to their graves.

Last year, when I was twice in Russia, they were calling Putin's "way" by new but still unsure terms: "managed democracy" or "populist nationalism" or "market Bolshevism." After the events of this September, the Russian papers were ominously calling it, playing on the comparative memory of the Bolsheviks' October Revolution, the "September Revolution" and even "the Restoration."

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