| MOSCOW - Countries react differently to terror. After
the Sept. 11 attacks,
Americans rallied behind their government of their own free will. After
Madrid train bombings last March, Spaniards ousted theirs. President
Vladimir V. Putin took steps last week that seem to ensure that Russians
will do neither.
After modern Russia's worst terrorist act - the horrifying seizure of
school that ended with more than 300 hostages dead - Mr. Putin ordered
overhaul of the political system, stripping Russians of their right to
elect their governors and district representatives in Parliament. Mr.
Putin's response seemed like a non sequitur, since how the country conducts
its elections on the regional level has little, if anything, to do with
fighting the terrorism that war in Chechnya has spawned. But there was
logic to it, at least for Mr. Putin and his supporters, and it was one
dashed - perhaps decisively - hopes here and abroad that Russia had left
behind its long, tortured history of authoritarianism when the Soviet
Democracy, Mr. Putin suggested in remarks after the school siege, does
result in stability, but rather instability. It does not unify, but rather
divides. The principal threat posed by democracy in Russia today, he made
clear on separate occasions in the last two weeks, lies in simmering ethnic
and religious tensions along the rim of Russia where ethnically non-Russian
people live. That division, he suggested, can only be controlled with
iron hand from above.
The attack on the school in Beslan was a watershed in a country that
had its share of them in history. And to Mr. Putin's critics, it confirmed
their fears that, instinctively, he puts his faith in the Kremlin's
unquestioned authority as the force to hold Russia together.
In the tragic arc of Russian history, it has always been so - even if,
the end, the rigid power of the center has always failed.
A theme of those who accepted Mr. Putin's prescription was distrust
unruliness of electoral will in a country with deep ethnic, social, class
and religious divisions.
It was those divisions that the fighters who seized the school - terrorists
loyal to the Chechen separatist commander Shamil Basayev - seemed eager
stoke when they struck in multiethnic North Ossetia.
They seemed well aware that what Russia has failed to do in more than
years of post-Soviet politics is develop a sense of national identity
might overcome those divisions. Indeed, in the southern and Asian areas
where Russia's Muslim groups live, an ardent religious identification
threatening to take its place.
"We live in conditions of aggravated internal conflicts and interethnic
conflicts that before were harshly suppressed by the governing ideology,"
Mr. Putin said the night after the siege in Beslan ended on Sept. 3. In
speech, he lamented the demise of "a huge, great country," the
Union, and rued the forces of disorder that its dissolution unleashed
He returned to the theme four days later when he met with a group of
American and European academics and analysts. Media accounts afterward
focused on his pointed rebuff of calls to negotiate with Chechnya's
separatists, whom he equated with Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. More
telling about his plans to come was his reference to an obscure electoral
dispute in Karachayevo-Cherkessia, one of the troubled republics of the
In 1999, a disputed presidential election split the republic's two main
ethnic groups, the Karachai and the Cherkess. As Mr. Putin recounted it,
only his intervention - as prime minister, at the time - averted a civil
Clifford Kupchan, vice president of the Nixon Center in Washington,
attended the meeting with Mr. Putin, and summarized Mr. Putin's dark view
of democracy as "one man, one vote, one war."
"Given that Russia is not a melting pot, but rather a fragmented
Kupchan said in an interview, "he does not believe that democracy
As he has before, Mr. Putin insisted last week that Russia remained
democratic course, but he did so more reservedly than ever. When he
announced his political overhaul on Monday, he said, "we must also,
course, react adequately to everything happening within the country."
In the turbulent years since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia's
embrace of democracy - and Mr. Putin's - has always been awkward.
The country's Constitution, written in 1993 after President Boris N.
Yeltsin ordered the shelling of Parliament to roust defiant legislators,
codifies basic democratic freedoms. In practice, though, democracy has
treated as little more than a license for a well-positioned few to steal
and loot the old Soviet assets and to exploit Russians' baser instincts,
especially when it comes to ethnic minorities.
Grigory A. Yavlinsky,
one of the country's most prominent liberals, said the public's concept
of democracy had been tainted by financial scandals and crises, by the
consolidation of wealth in the hands of a few well-connected billionaires,
by a decade of war in Chechnya, and lately by a wave of terrorist attacks,
staged not in symbols of grandeur like skyscrapers and government buildings,
but in places chillingly familiar to virtually every Russian: trains,
subways, airplanes, a theater and, worst, a school.
"All this period of time was called democracy," Mr. Yavlinsky
said in an
interview. "The people looked at it and said, 'If that is democracy,
thank you very much.' " But he added, angrily: "All these things
nothing in common with democracy. It was Potemkin democracy."
During his presidency, Mr. Putin has shown little enthusiasm for the
democratic experience. He has smothered political opponents, wrested
control of independent television and manipulated the outcome of regional
elections, none more so than the two presidential elections in Chechnya,
where loyalists were elected by Soviet-like margins last October and again
last month, after credible challengers were struck from the ballots.
Still, until Monday, Mr. Putin had never before reversed the fundamental
democratic right of representation through the ballot - a right enshrined
in the Constitution's letter and spirit, according to his critics. Under
his proposal, which the Parliament will almost certainly adopt since it
dominated by parties loyal to him, Mr. Putin will appoint governors,
presidents or other leaders who are now elected in each of country's 89
regions. Mr. Putin's proposals also would eliminate the district elections
that choose half of the 450 seats in Parliament; instead, they will be
selected based on national party lists drafted in Moscow in close
consultation with Mr. Putin's Kremlin.
What was striking last week was how many Russian elected officials heartily
endorsed Mr. Putin's plan.
"Elections are often dirty, with money from the shadow economy
groups trying to influence the results," Valentina I. Matviyenko,
governor of St. Petersburg, told Itar-Tass on Wednesday as she fell into
line behind a proposal that would deny her much of her electoral legitimacy
and political authority. (She was elected last fall and, apparently, knew
whereof she spoke.) "All this causes concern and alarm."
Her counterpart, Murat M. Zyazikov, president of the semi-autonomous
republic of Ingushetia, who was elected with the Kremlin's help, echoed
fears. In a telephone interview, he said that elections had turned into
"competitions between people with more money, which resulted in tensions
"Western and human values are very close to us, but we have our
own way of
development," he said. "I think this was done in order to consolidate
In other words, it would seem, "the people have spoken" remains
that strikes fear in Russia's ruling elite, which presumes to know better
what is better for the country.
"It is soft Stalinism," Mr. Yavlinsky said.
He and others have spoken out against Mr. Putin's reordering, but they
done so from the margins. A rally organized by Mr. Yavlinsky's Yabloko
party - with posters of Mr. Putin as Hitler - drew a handful of protesters.
A few of the 15 independent members of Parliament voiced objections and
then admitted there was little they could do to stop Mr. Putin.
The most prominent criticism came from the two men who, arguably, did
to create the system Russia has today, for better or worse. In twinned
essays that appeared on Friday in the newsweekly Moskovskiye Novosti,
Yeltsin and Mikhail S. Gorbachev wrote that Russia should preserve the
democratic gains of the last 13 years.
"Strangling freedoms and curtailing democratic rights," Mr.
"marks, among other things, the victory of terrorists."