MOSCOW – Responding to a series of deadly terror attacks, President Vladimir Putin (search) on Monday moved to significantly strengthen the Kremlin's grip on power, with new measures that include the naming of regional governors and an overhaul of the electoral system.
Putin told Cabinet members and security officials convened in special session that the future of Russia was at stake and urged the creation of a central, powerful anti-terror agency.
"The organizers and perpetrators of the terror attack are aiming at the disintegration of the state, the breakup of Russia," he said. "We need a single organization capable of not only dealing with terror attacks but also working to avert them, destroy criminals in their hideouts, and if necessary, abroad."
Putin's declaration followed a series of stunning terror attacks blamed on Chechen rebels (search), climaxing in the three-day school seizure in southern Russia in which more than 330 people were killed.
He said he would propose legislation abolishing the election of local governors by popular vote. Instead, they would be nominated by the president and confirmed by local legislatures — a move that would undo the remaining vestiges of the local autonomy already chipped away by Putin during his first term in office.
Putin explained his move by the need to streamline and strengthen the executive branch to make it more capable of combating terror.
His critics immediately assailed the proposal as a self-destructive effort that could fuel dissent in the provinces.
"The abolition of elections in the Russian regions deals a blow to the foundations of Russian federalism and means the return to the extremely inefficient system of government," said Sergei Mitrokhin, a leading member of the liberal Yabloko party.
Sergei Markov, a political analyst with close ties to the Kremlin (search), said the president's move against the governors could help curb corruption that has flourished in some regions.
"At the same time, it means ... a lowering of (their) general political authority and a serious lowering of political pluralism," Markov told Ekho Moskvy radio.
In another move aimed to strengthen the federal authorities, Putin recommended eliminating the individual races that currently fill half of the seats in the national parliament and have the entire lower house filled by parties on a proportional basis.
Putin said that the move would help foster dialogue by expanding the clout of political parties, but his opponents warned it would further increase the clout of the Kremlin-controlled parliament factions that already enjoy an overwhelming majority in the lower house, the State Duma.
Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of the few opposition deputies, scorned the president's political proposals and said if they were approved, "the next Duma will be simply virtual, it will consist of just marionette party lists and won't enjoy any authority."
"How is it possible the president doesn't understand that it won't strengthen the country, it will further tear apart the unity of the country and tear federal organs power away from the people?" he told Ekho Moskvy radio. "Yes, the Kremlin's authority will be strengthened, but the country will be weakened."
Although Putin has been criticized for strengthening his own powers in the past, three weeks of violence and the deaths of 430 people have led to increased support among the Russian people for measures to combat terrorism.
Putin named one of his closest confidants, Cabinet chief of staff Dmitry Kozak, to represent him in the southern district that includes the Caucasus.
Putin said official corruption that had helped terrorists — such as the issuing of documents "leading to grave consequences," should be punished with particular severity.
He also signaled a possible government crackdown on Islamic groups, proposing that extremist organizations serving as a cover for terrorists should be outlawed.
A new structure called the Public Chamber would strengthen public oversight of the government and the actions of law enforcement agencies, he said. The chamber would involve non-governmental organizations and other groups in the fight against terror.
Putin said that terrorism is rooted in the North Caucasus' low living standards, in widespread unemployment, and in poor education.
"This is a rich, fertile ground for the growth of extremist propaganda and the recruitment of new supporters of terror," Putin said. "The North Caucasus is a key strategic region for Russia. It is a victim of terrorism and also a springboard for it."