Putin plans heavy central control for Russia's war on rebels

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The Independent Online

Ten days after Russia suffered the worst terror attack in its history, president Vladimir Putin argued it was necessary to concentrate even more power in his hands to ensure that there is never a repeat of the Beslan school massacre.

Ten days after Russia suffered the worst terror attack in its history, president Vladimir Putin argued it was necessary to concentrate even more power in his hands to ensure that there is never a repeat of the Beslan school massacre.

Unveiling radical reforms to the way the country is governed and guarded, Mr Putin immediately drew criticism from Russia's liberal politicians, who accused him of using Beslan as an excuse to push through authoritarian measures that would turn Russia into a unitary state.

"Such proposals have nothing to do with the security of people [or] with the fight against terrorism," claimed Vladimir Ryzhkov, a liberal deputy. "The Kremlin is simply using the momentum."

Addressing the entire government and the country's 89 regional governors, Mr Putin said he would introduce a bill that would see Russia's once powerful governors appointed by him and not elected. He stressed the importance of "vertical" top-down power and strong central leadership saying that the terrorists who targeted Beslan had wanted to break up Russia itself.

"We don't have the right to forget that in their far-reaching plans, the plotters, organisers and people who carried out their instructions were determined to achieve the disintegration of the country, the collapse of the government and the end of Russia ... I am convinced that the unity of this country is the chief prerequisite for victory over terror," he said.

All of the country's resources would need to be mobilised, he added, so that Russia could respond to the present threat "as one single organism". Mr Putin wants to introduce proportional representation for the country's lower house or Duma, a move that is likely to sound the death knell for many independent anti-Kremlin deputies. Half the chamber's 450 deputies are elected from local constituencies on a first-past-the-post basis; Mr Putin is adamant all deputies should be elected on a party-list basis in future.

Critics fear the move will squeeze out small independent groups, leaving room only for big political parties. They say the chamber is already heavily dominated by Mr Putin's "United Russia" party as it is.

"Putin has proposed renting out parliament to puppet Moscow-based parties," said Mr Ryzhkov, one of the few independent deputies in the Duma. But Mr Putin said only tough action would suffice. "It is essential to act ... and to increase the effectiveness of the organs of power."

Calling the North Caucusus region where Beslan is located the "most strategic in the country", he said it was time for the centre to step in. "The roots of terror lie in ongoing mass unemployment in the region, in the lack of an effective social policy there and in the low level of education ... and at times in the impossibility of even getting an education. All this is provides particularly fertile soil for extremist propaganda."

A special North Caucusus Commission would be set up and headed by Dmitry Kozak, the government's chief of staff and a long-time Putin ally.

Hinting that Russia would copy US-style anti-terror measures, Mr Putin spoke of the need for an anti-terror ministry. He also plans to crackdown on Islamist groups by starving them of funds and targeting corruption. He spoke of the desiribility of citizens setting up volunteer anti-terror groups. Systems would also be set up in schools, companies and institutes so people know what to do in the event of a terror attack.

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