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Revolutionary war

Russia | The war on terrorism allows Vladimir Putin to push for what he has always wanted: centralized power in the Kremlin

Issue: "Iraq: Terror without end," Oct. 2, 2004

For some of Beslan's parents the school siege has not truly ended. Three weeks after terrorists took 1,200 people hostage, many were still hunting for their dead and missing children. But while the North Ossetian town toiled heavily through its grief, the Kremlin scrambled to calm its chaotic Caucasus republics. On Sept. 13, just 10 days after the siege ended, President Vladimir Putin proposed the biggest overhaul in Russian government in 10 years.

The proposals are ostensibly meant to combat rising terrorism. In practice, they will centralize power in Mr. Putin's hands, part of a several-year trend throttling the country's fledgling democracy. The main changes involve lessening regional autonomy and strengthening Kremlin-supporting parties in the parliament. Mr. Putin now wants local parliaments in 89 regions to elect their governors after he nominates them, rather than select them by popular vote. He also proposes that seats in the lower house of parliament, the Duma, be decided entirely from party lists. This would eliminate district races that have supplied independents and members from parties not aligned with the Kremlin.

The sweeping changes fit less with fighting terrorism and more with Mr. Putin's post-Soviet goal when he first came to power: preventing a country that spans 11 time zones from crumbling apart. "The regional governors were really asserting more and more authority," says Mark Elliott, director of Samford University's Global Center at the Beeson Divinity School. "When Putin came to power his prime agenda was to rein in these governors."

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Mr. Putin's reaction to the Beslan tragedy also indicates that he has no idea how to stop instability spreading beyond the Caucasus, says senior Brookings Institution fellow Fiona Hill. His thorniest problem is Russia's corrupt security forces and officials. Taking bribes, they allowed the Beslan terrorists to glide through checkpoints and in August foisted two female suicide bombers onto planes that they blew up.

"Even those most critical of Putin have to acknowledge he's very popular because of his authoritarianism, not despite it," Ms. Hill said, speaking at a Sept. 21 forum at the American Enterprise Institute. "What we have seen is not about power and strength but weakness. It's more about aimless desperation in the wake of Beslan."

The immediate risk after 40 days of mourning end in Beslan is that North Ossetians will begin launching revenge attacks on neighboring Ingushetia, home to some of the terrorists involved in the school siege. In the long run Mr. Putin has fewer and fewer options that will work in Chechnya. After two disastrous wars, granting Chechnya independence will probably relegate the republic to factional in-fighting. Worse still, Islamic terrorist Shamil Basayev would likely emerge on top: The warlord has taken responsibility for the Beslan attack and vows to keep fighting.

If Mr. Putin is battening down the hatches, he has also mentioned mistakes never acknowledged before, says Ms. Hill. He told Western reporters the first Chechen war in 1994 was ill-conceived. "He said he was prepared to offer maximum autonomy to Chechnya, even to the point of violating the Russian constitution." Whether he carries through on his words, however, remains to be seen.

Parents in Beslan, meanwhile, are still sifting through burned remains at the local morgue, in some cases relying only on fingers and limbs to identify their children. A number of parents say they scooped their wounded children from the violent melee as the school collapsed and put them in waiting cars to be taken to the hospital-only to have them disappear again. Dozens are feared abducted. Like Mr. Putin, parents are struggling to unsnarl a mess and reestablish stability out of a hellish nightmare.

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