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Tipsheet: Russian response to terror attacks

EDITORS: In response to a series of deadly terror attacks, Russian President Vladimir Putin has announced new measures to significantly strengthen the Kremlin's power. They include the creation of a central anti-terror agency, an overhaul of the current electoral system, and the abolition of elections of local governors by popular vote. Indiana University Bloomington political scientists with expertise in Russian politics and foreign policy are available to comment on Putin's plan.

Henry Hale is an assistant professor of political science at IUB and editor of Russian Election Watch, a monthly bulletin that provided analysis of the recent Russian parliamentary and presidential elections. He can be reached at 812-855-1664 or Hale offered the following analysis of Putin's reforms:

(on abolishing the elections of regional governors)

"Putin will be nominating a governor who will still have to be approved by the local legislature, so it's not a blank check. It certainly is a setback for democracy, since people will no longer be able to vote (for local governors), and it will probably increase Putin's power overall, but it falls short of the institution of an outright dictatorship."

(on the timing of the reforms)

"One reason Putin has chosen this moment is that people are united in wanting to address the dangers that they're facing. In the past, what the Russian people have wanted from their leader and what Putin has always delivered is some type of action, and this falls into that category. It's vintage Putin. He's making a dramatic move against the crisis. Whether it will solve the crisis remains to be seen. In terms of political reform, I think he is using the crisis to accelerate a lot of reforms he's been planning to do all along."

(on going 'back to the USSR')

"While we should be concerned about the direction Putin's reforms are headed, we should be careful not to exaggerate the degree that these reforms will result in one-man rule in Russia. The big picture of Putin's presidency has been a gradual restriction on democratic rights and liberties, and media freedom has gone down, but we're still nowhere close to going back to the days of the USSR."

Dina Spechler is an associate professor of political science at IUB whose research interests cover Russian, Soviet and American foreign policy and international relations of the Middle East. She can be reached at 812-855-5267 (office), 812-339-3777 (home) or 812-336-3656 (home). Spechler offered the following commentary:

(on the creation of a central anti-terror agency)

"Buried in these changes in the composition of the Duma and the election of local governors is the unification of anti-terror efforts in a single agency. Decentralization is a very big issue in the United States (in the war on terror). I'm not at all convinced that it's a problem in Russia. Russia is dealing with a special kind of terrorist problem associated with Chechen nationalism, and a lot of the terrorists' funding has come from abroad. It may be that this is a cover for allocating considerably more resources toward counterterrorism under the aegis of this agency."

(on Russian public opinion about Putin's reforms)

"I don't know how much the Russian public really cares. Clearly the liberals and communists aren't very happy, but they've already demonstrated in the recent elections that they didn't have a lot of public support. There will definitely be an element of opposition, but how broad that opposition will be remains to be seen. There doesn't seem to be a major rallying around Putin. If the Chechen rebels and their allies can keep up the current pace of attacks, that may seriously erode Putin's popularity."

(on Putin's views toward democracy)

"Putin isn't bitterly opposed to democracy and everything it stands for. These (reforms) have been around for a while for economic purposes, particularly the idea of nominating candidates for regional governors. He is trying to enact legislation that he considers essential for Russia's economic strength and to give him more control over Russia's resources. He wants to enact a whole series of reforms that will put the Russian economy on firmer footing."