Putin's moves could harm democracy, Bush warns

U.S. leader treads gingerly on subject of consolidation

September 16, 2004|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - President Bush expressed concern yesterday that Russian President Vladimir V. Putin's proposed consolidation of political power in the aftermath of a deadly hostage siege in Beslan could undermine democracy in Russia.

Bush used an address during a Hispanic Heritage Month ceremony at the White House to offer his first response to Putin's plan to combat militants in his country by centralizing authority. Putin would get the power to nominate regional governors, and the full lower house of parliament would be elected from party ballots. That could effectively exclude many Putin opponents from parliament.

Some critics in the United States and abroad view Putin's proposal as a pure power grab. Bush treaded gingerly on the subject, saying, "As governments fight the enemies of democracy, they must uphold the principles of democracy."

Putin has proposed fighting militants in his country by ending popular vote elections in the 89 regions and establishing a system in which candidates would be selected by the president and approved by regional assemblies.

"I am ... concerned about the decisions that are being made in Russia that could undermine democracy in Russia," Bush said. "Great countries, great democracies have a balance of power between central government and local governments, a balance of power within central governments between the executive branch and the legislative and the judicial branch."

Putin suggested the changes after heavily armed militants took more than 1,200 hostages at a school in Beslan in southern Russia town. More than 300 people, many of them children, were killed in the crisis, which Russians have blamed on Chechen rebels.

Until Bush's comments yesterday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, had been the only top U.S. officials to criticize Putin's moves. The Bush administration has frequently assigned Powell such a role.

"In effect, this is pulling back on some of the democratic reforms as seen by the international community that have occurred in the past," Powell said Tuesday.

"We understand the need to fight against terrorism. ... But in an attempt to go after terrorists, I think one has to strike a proper balance to make sure that you don't move in a direction that takes you away from the democratic reforms or the democratic process that you are committed to," he said in an interview with Reuters.

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