By Dale Street
The series of “reforms” announced by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in the aftermath of the Beslan school massacre have nothing to do with fighting terrorism. They are another stage in the evolution of Putin’s authoritarian and semi-dictatorial regime.
The Washington Post summed up the ‘reforms’ as: “An unambiguous step towards tyranny in Russia. There is no complexity or fuzziness about the significance of Putin’s actions.
Putin is imposing dictatorship the old-fashioned way. …Russia needs to fight terrorism.
But eliminating elections and quashing Putin’s political opponents has nothing to do with that fight.”
Since coming to power in Russia in late 1999 Putin has taken over or shut down all Russian television stations, achieved total subordination of both chambers of the Russian parliament, re-asserted government control over the Russian energy industry, imprisoned or driven into exile oligarchs critical of his regime, and pursued an increasingly brutal war against the people of Chechnya.
The post-Beslan ‘reforms’ mark a further concentration of unaccountable power in Putin’s hands. Central to the ‘reforms’ are the abolition of elections for provincial governors, and abolition of first-past-the-post seats in the Duma.
Direct elections of provincial governors are to be scrapped. Instead, governors will be nominated by Putin himself and then confirmed in office by the local provincial assembly.
(And no provincial assembly is likely to defy Putin by refusing to endorse his nominee. Corruption and venality rule out such a prospect.)
Under Putin’s predecessor Yeltsin, provincial governors had a fairly free hand to run their own fiefdoms and even to defy the Kremlin.
Under Putin, however, provincial governors have been eliminated from the Federation Council (the upper chamber of the Russian parliament), and have also been subordinated to seven presidential envoys (popularly known as ‘super-governors’) who have responsibility for overseeing the actions of all provincial governors in Russia.
The replacement of elected provincial governors by ones imposed by the President will complete the process of eliminating a potential source of opposition to Putin’s rule.
In future elections for the Duma (the lower chamber of the Russian parliament) the Russian electorate will be able to vote only for parties, not for individual candidates.
Elections will be based on proportional representation, a party will need to secure at least 7% of the vote to obtain seats in the Duma, and parties will not be allowed to form a ‘bloc’ with one another in order to overcome the 7% hurdle.
At present, half the Duma seats are elected from party lists on the basis of proportional representation, and the other half are elected on a first-past-the-post basis in individual constituencies.
In the last Duma elections only four parties managed to win party-list seats in the Duma: Putin’s own party (United Russia), two nationalist parties which back Putin, and another nationalist party (the Communist Party) which sometimes goes through the motions of opposing Putin.
All other parties represented in the Duma achieved representation only because some of their candidates won in first-past-the-post constituency elections.
Around a hundred seats in the Duma are currently held by independents or by members of the smaller political parties. Their chances of achieving re-election to the Duma will be annihilated by Putin’s ‘reforms’. The result will be an even more politically homo-geneous — and subservient — Duma.
Along with abolishing locally elected governors and scrapping first-past-the-post elections for the Duma, Putin has announced a raft of other measures, the precise nature of which was spelt out with varying degrees of clarity.
There will be a “crackdown on extremist organisations” (as if a crackdown was not already long underway), tougher border controls, a crackdown on police corruption, the creation of a single anti-terrorist organisation, the appointment of his protégé Dmitry Kozak as envoy to the Southern Federal District (which includes Chechnya), possible pre-emptive strikes against terrorist bases (even if located abroad), and the adoption of further measures to “foresee and prevent terrorism in any form”.
The rhetoric which accompanied Putin’s announcement of his ‘anti-terrorist’ measures emphasised the need for “national unity” and strengthening the “executive chain of command”. The reality of Putin’s ‘reforms’, however, is the elimination of virtually the last (potential) constitutional checks and controls on his powers as President.