Putin's plan may backfire

September 17, 2004|By Mark N. Katz

RUSSIAN President Vladimir V. Putin has seized upon the Beslan school tragedy to chip away even further at Russia's democracy. But instead of strengthening his own power, it's possible that his plan will backfire and lead to the sort of peaceful popular protest that led to the downfall of authoritarian rulers in most of Eastern Europe in 1989, in Serbia in 2000 and in Georgia in 2003.

During the era of Mr. Putin's predecessor, Boris N. Yeltsin, Russians increasingly came to equate democracy with poverty and insecurity. What Mr. Putin offered them was greater security and well-being in exchange for less democracy -- a trade that most Russians were more than willing to make. And during his first term, Mr. Putin appeared to deliver his part of the bargain as prosperity increased and some progress seemed to be made in pacifying Chechnya.

But after the recent spate of terrorist attacks in Russia, culminating in the Belsan school siege this month in which 338 people were killed, about half of them children, Russians have increasingly come to question whether Mr. Putin can deliver more security in exchange for less democracy. In fact, during conversations I had with Russians in Moscow during the week after Beslan, many had come to equate less democracy with less security.

Russians are angry not just at what the terrorists did but at the incompetence of the security forces in dealing with the crisis and the government's repeated lies about what was happening. The problem, as they see it, is that the government and the security forces are riddled with corruption and incompetence.

Mr. Putin's newly announced "solution," though, calls for provincial governors to be not elected but appointed by Mr. Putin, and for extending the proportional representation system that increased pro-Putin forces in December's parliamentary elections from half to all of the seats in the Duma, or parliament. Having more "yes men" in office, though, is likely not to end corruption and incompetence, but to increase them.

While the lesson that Mr. Putin, a former KGB agent, drew from Beslan is that more central control is needed, others in Russia learned something different. According to one longtime friend in Moscow, what Beslan has taught the Russian public is that it has nothing to fear from the government. For if the government deals so ineffectively with Islamic extremists, it isn't going to be able to suppress the Russian public, either.

Demoralized and suffering from the same problems of Russian society, he doubts that the security forces could be relied upon to fire on the public. And if even a few officers went over to the democratic opposition, this might serve to immobilize the armed forces since no army wants a fight within its own ranks.

This prediction may seem odd considering the apparent lack of a democratic movement in Russia and the failure of any democratic party to clear the 5 percent hurdle needed to obtain any of the half the Duma seats apportioned by proportional representation in December's election. But the massive demonstration that took place in Moscow on Sept. 7 suggests that a democratic movement might be reviving.

It's true that the demonstration was sanctioned by the Kremlin. It originally was suggested, however, by a Moscow radio announcer. The Kremlin then gave its blessing to the demonstration; Mr. Putin would have been highly embarrassed if it had occurred without his approval. Some of those who attended indicated that people had come to the demonstration not because they backed Mr. Putin, but to express their sorrow for the victims of Beslan. Additional demonstrations elsewhere in Russia reportedly were much more critical of how the government had handled the tragedy.

This experience may lead to Russians once more acquiring the taste for the large-scale demonstrations that they displayed during the latter years of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev but dropped when they became disillusioned with democracy under Mr. Yeltsin. A revival of demonstrations in favor of democracy would pose a serious dilemma for Mr. Putin. Any attempt to crack down on them could just lead to more demonstrations as well as to defections from the security forces ordered to suppress them. But not cracking down could also lead to more demonstrations.

Mr. Putin ought to make use of the Beslan crisis to eliminate the corruption and incompetence within the security services. But he appears loath to do this because these are his main supporters. He would also do well to strengthen democracy in Russia, if only so that he no longer will be solely responsible for everything that happens.

His immediate reaction, though, has been to propose a weakening of democracy. But if he continues along this path, he may only succeed in provoking the heightened demand for democracy that he has sought to avoid.

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University.

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