On Sept. 13, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed the implementation of a plan aimed at installing a "vertical" system of power to combat militant attacks. Rather than actually affecting how the country combats potential attacks, this move serves to further entrench Putin's already near-absolute power.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking at a special Cabinet meeting of regional governors Sept. 13, announced plans for the establishment of a "vertical" system of power aimed at combating attacks such as the recent hostage crisis at a school in Beslan, which killed 339 people. The new plan calls for the introduction of proportional parliamentary voting and a replacement of the system of direct elections for regional governors with presidential appointment.
Putin's course of action is based on the argument that strengthening central government control is vital to fighting terrorism. With the possible exception of making regional governors more directly answerable to Putin personally -- and therefore more interested in working with Putin against militants than being bribed by militants -- Putin's changes will have no effect on Russia's security problems.
This move is nothing short of a personal coup by the president against the institutions of the Russian state.
Central control of the Russian political system was already solid before Putin's Sept. 13 pronouncements. Putin's Unity Party -- whose only platform is unswerving support for whatever the president says -- already holds in excess of a two-thirds majority in the lower house of the Duma and the upper house has been manipulated into being yet another rubber-stamp body. Though regional governors technically remain outside of his control, in reality the Kremlin has manipulated the election process to ensure Kremlin-friendly candidates consistently win.
In actuality, Putin's plan does not so much serve to actively combat terrorist-style attacks as it does strengthen his position. In effect, Putin is capitalizing on the Beslan crisis -- which has rocked Russian to its core -- to firmly entrench his personal power and "re-Sovietize" Russia, politically speaking.
Power does not necessarily translate into efficiency. Russia already has become an administrative state: no one does anything without Putin's approval. During the Beslan massacre, security services were awaiting orders from the Kremlin as to whether they should negotiate with the militants -- orders that never really came. Russia is rapidly becoming a unitary state in which everyone is afraid to act without express direction from the top. The recent changes will only encourage that evolution.
Such a political setup also makes investment a massive headache because investors must await Kremlin approval for every little step in the investment process (already a huge problem in over-bureaucratized Russia). A source in a European intergovernmental institution that assists potential investors working in Russia says the leading problem is no longer outdated regulations or local hostility to outsiders, but ossification. The need for permission means foreigners cannot even bribe their way forward.
Putin already held de facto total power. Now, he will hold that power in name as well. The difference is razor thin. In fact, there is almost nothing Putin could not do before the change that he now will be able to do.
So why bother?
Putin is becoming a traditional Russian ruler; one who desires no institutional blocks on his power. Put another way, Putin's power is at a high point considering the state of national crisis in the Beslan aftermath. Putin's move is designed to entrench his power and ensure his future power. Did Putin need to act now? Of course not; he faces no threat. But someday he might. So, his thinking goes, it is better to get the ball rolling in a totalitarian direction while he completely controls the political scene, rather that do it from a position of weakness at a later time.
Putin's next step will be to establish a steadily escalating system of punishments for those who challenge him -- the dogged pursuit of former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky being an example of previous, more mild punishments -- while carrying out a systematic purge of independent thinkers within the Kremlin. Such a program requires allies, and Putin will get them from two places: the security services that spawned him, and from beyond the Kremlin. Putin will install people in myriad positions -- including the regional governorships -- whose power is linked to Putin's own. The experience of the past five years proves Putin is willing to share power with those who never challenge him, and will capitalize on that reputation.
Finally, Putin must limit the options for his removal. With total control over the formal political system, he need not fear elections, impeachments or censure. His only concern regarding his political survival is infighting. From the position of a Russian autocrat such as Putin, this was all about making a choice between defending his position in the public halls of politics, or in the Kremlin's back alleys.
Guess where Putin is more comfortable?