Putin charts a new course for Russia

Putin charts a new course for Russia
By Muhammad Zamir

The Daily Star, Bangladesh
29 Oct. 2004

President Putin of Russia has ordered a drastic overhaul of how his
country is run, stressing that the battle could only be won with
greater central control. His announcement came after more than 330
persons, mostly children, died in the controversial and deplorable
Beslan school siege by Chechen rebels in early September.

The whole situation has been brought to the fore once again through
the reluctance of Russia’s leaders to grant Chechnya the independence
that they have been striving for nearly a decade.

This latest incident led to human rights groups taking up arms on
both sides. Those supporting the Chechens pointed out the great
suffering that the people of Chechnya have undergone for the last
seventy years — exile to Kazakhstan under Stalin, being allowed
to return home by Khrushchev and then being denied the chance of
nominal independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They also
alleged that something like ten per cent of all Chechens, perhaps
as many as 200,000 people, had been tortured and murdered by inept,
marauding Russian troops in the years since Putin’s predecessor, Boris
Yeltsin, launched the Chechen conflict ten years ago. They have in
this regard noted that women Chechen suicide bombers might have been
created because of the ‘brutalisation’ of the Chechen people and the
‘widespread use of war-rape by contract soldiers.’

Akhmed Zakayev, the European Representative of the Chechen Republic’s
last freely elected President, Aslan Maskhadov, took this one
step further. He alleged that western governments had to share
responsibility for this latest bout of terrorism because of their
silence about Russia’s human rights violations in Chechnya. He went on
to state that double standards were in vogue among western nations with
regard to state-sponsored violence in different parts of the world.

Nevertheless what is important is that Chechnyans appear to have
several influential friends both within Russia and abroad, and that
is slowly being taken cognizance of by Russian authorities. This
group includes pro-US Russian critics like Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir
Ryzhkov (men associated with the extreme neo liberal market reforms)
and neo-cons like Boris Berezovsky and several US neo-cons like
Richard Perle, Eliot Abrams, Kenneth Adelman and US Thinktanks like
the Carnegie Andowment, Rand Corporation and the American Committee
for Peace in Chechnya. These organisations in particular, have been
assiduous over recent months in arguing against Moscow’s claims that
there is a link between the Chechens and the Al-Qaida. These prominent
voices use the Chechen rebellion as a stick with which to beat Putin.

The latest Beslan atrocity appears to have given Putin the necessary
handle, not only to re-evaluate policy but also to agree upon decisive
steps to centralise a more hierarchical approach to administration.

In the wake of this catastrophe, President Putin’s reaction appears
to have been evoked by two factors — nostalgic Soviet patriotism and
Russia’s ancient suspicion about possible encirclement. His response
was that terrorists were trying to leave Russia without defences
either to the east or the west. He was also bitterly critical of the
prevailing status within the internal administrative structure. He
not only blamed the rash of bombings all over Russia and the Beslan
disaster as having resulted from Russia being ‘weak’ but that ‘the
weak always get beaten’.

This frustration and anger have been reflected in Putin accelerating
efforts to create a more authoritarian and centralised form of rule.

Critics have, however, suggested that such measures have been
introduced to divert common Russian citizen’s attention from rising
social and economic tensions and quell public dissatisfaction
and anger. In this context, they are pointing fingers at the many
structural economic reforms that Russia will require to undertake
in the coming years — rise in domestic price of oil and gas which
will hit people’s utility bills, privatisation of medicine, potential
closure of kindergartens and even schools in smaller towns, mainly
in the northern Caucasus (in areas prone to potential violence).

Whatever the criticism, Putin appears to be quite firm about his agenda
to stop the ‘disintegration of the state, the break-up of Russia’. He
believes that the changes that are being introduced will be crucial
for future stability and will have to be undertaken even if Russians
cannot ‘live in as carefree a manner as before’.

Regional governors, cabinet colleagues and senior bureaucrats have
now jointly initiated steps to agree on ‘appropriate measures on
foreseeing and preventing terrorism in any form’.

The shake-up, biggest since Putin came to office four years ago, is
likely to concentrate power in one pair of hands. Other far reaching
steps will include the FSB (formerly KGB) controlling the border and
playing a more central role in defining core administrative policy
in the name of creating unity.

Efforts will now presumably also be taken to create a Russian version
of the US Department of Homeland Security, through a strengthened FSB,
which will coordinate the different ministries and law-enforcement
agencies who are associated in curbing terrorism. Steps will also
ostensibly be taken to raise the profile of Russia’s Security Council
or ‘the little Politburo’ which is chaired by Mr. Putin and includes
all the ‘power’ Ministers — defence, interior, foreign affairs as
well as the Prosecutor-General.

President Putin has already changed the Parliament’s Upper House and
the Federation Council so that regional Governors and legislative
leaders no longer sit in it. One anticipates that this progressive
evolution might eventually lead to the President appointing Governors
rather than these officials being elected.

Such steps would in a manner of speaking, restore within Russia,
the Soviet system of hierarchical party rule from Moscow.

I believe that Putin’s restrictive steps might be accepted with
some degree of calm within mainland Russia but is bound to lead to
difficulties with his southern neighbours and the expanded EU. In
the Caucasus, Russia’s frontal and strong-arm tactics to re-establish
authority will meet with greater resistance from dispossessed Chechens,
not because of Islamic fundamentalism but more because of their
nationalistic belief. Similarly, the new nationalist government in
Georgia is unlikely to help seal its frontier (in the Pankisi Gorge)
with Russia when it is trying to remove the Russian troops from the
disputed territory of South Ossetia, which was within Georgia’s borders
in Soviet times. Georgia in fact, has already stated its concern over
Russian pre-emptive action.

Azerbaijan may also be unwilling to help clamp down on its Chechen
Diaspora as Russia appears to have failed in getting Armenian troops
out of large areas of Azerbaijan, which they occupy.

Similarly, the expanded EU, which now includes many east European
states and even some Soviet republics will be watching events in Russia
with great caution. Emergence of inflexibility and rigidity in Russian
politics will definitely not be received enthusiasm. Latvia has already
been vocal about Russia’s conduct of security operations and some
others have also expressed serious concern about Russia’s handling
of the protracted Chechen crisis. They have already expressed their
doubts about internal military solutions rather than the pursuit of
international mediation and talks between the Russian government and
Chechen political representatives. Such advice, quite understandably,
have not been received with any enthusiasm by Putin.

There will be criticism of Putin’s new policies. Vladimir Pribyovski,
head of the think-tank Panorama has said that terrorism is being used
as a pretext to change the federal structure of the country’. Others
are also alleging that the planned measures will probably lead to
changes in the Constitution which will enable Mr. Putin to try for
a third term in office in the elections in 2008. Presently, there is
restriction to two terms only.

The US Administration, as expected, has made mild noises about Russia
‘pulling back on some domestic reforms’. President Bush also remarked
that Kremlin’s security overhaul could ‘not only undermine democracy’
but also affect the delicate balance in Russia within the central
government ‘between the executive branch and the legislative and
judicial branches’.

Whatever be the view of others, Putin and Russia appear to have drawn
a line. The recent decisions reiterate that the Caucasus is vital
to Russian interests — its southern border is strategic and that
it continues to be Russia’s road to the Middle East and crucially to
the oil resources of Azerbaijan.

Putin now believes that, should Chechnya become independent, the
whole Caucasian powder-keg could explode with Russia losing for
ever its ancestral power over the south. Such an equation, to him,
is unthinkable.

Putin, known for his dislike of Gorbachev, also knows that ordinary
Russians judge their leaders by their ability to control and increase
state power. The President with his KGB background, believes his new
tough measures will be seen as a personification of authoritarian
democracy and closer to the historical Russians as an example of
Putin not being a push over, trying to copy some one else’s model of
democracy. He might be right.

Muhammad Zamir is a former Secretary and Ambassador.