msnbc.com news services
updated 9/15/2004 6:30:55 AM ET 2004-09-15T10:30:55

Russia rejected on Wednesday U.S. criticism of sweeping political changes proposed by President Vladimir Putin, saying the reforms were strictly Moscow’s business.

“First of all, the processes that are under way in Russia are our internal affair,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, referring to comments by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Lavrov, speaking in Kazakhstan on the sidelines of a meeting of former Soviet states, said Washington had no right to impose its own model of democracy on anyone else.

“And it is at least strange that, while talking about a certain ‘pulling back,’ as he (Powell) put it, on some of the democratic reforms in the Russian Federation, he tried to assert yet one more time the thought that democracy can only be copied from someone’s model,” he said.

“We, for our part, do not comment on the U.S. system of presidential elections, for instance,” Lavrov said.

In an interview with Reuters, Powell said Putin’s proposed changes to Russian electoral law was “pulling back on some of the democratic reforms.” He pledged to raise his concerns with the Russian leadership.

The radical changes to Russia’s electoral system, announced Monday in response to a spate of deadly terrorist attacks, would significantly strengthen the Kremlin’s control over the country’s political life.

On Tuesday, Russia announced it was pouring $5.4 billion in additional funding into its security agencies, the first concrete step in an anti-terrorism battle that Putin has called the country’s No. 1 priority.

“The fight against terrorism requires a long-range perspective,” Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency, one day after Putin proposed a major extension of Kremlin control over Russia’s political and security structures.

Russia’s main security agencies — the Federal Security Service, Interior Ministry and Foreign Intelligence Service — will split an additional $1.71 billion in funding. The Defense Ministry will receive an additional $3.66 billion, ITAR-Tass reported, citing Kudrin.

Kudrin had already committed $68.5 million in next year’s budget to a new anti-terrorism program to increase security in public places, including Moscow’s subway.

In response to a series of terrorist attacks that killed 430 people in the past three weeks — including a school in the town of Beslan — Putin said a central, powerful anti-terrorism agency must be created, but details were not made public.

Less choices
The restructuring of the Russian electoral system was announced Monday at an emergency meeting Monday of Putin’s Cabinet, top security officials and regional governors.

Under the plan, popularly elected governors would be replaced by those nominated by the president, and voters would cast ballots for parties instead of individual candidates — ending the practice of legislators representing specific districts.

Currently, half the members of the lower house of parliament are chosen from party lists and half are elected in individual races. That chamber, the State Duma, is dominated by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party.

Putin’s supporters praised the plan Tuesday.

“Strong political parties are the basis of the political system,” pro-Kremlin lawmaker Mikhail Grishankov told state-controlled Channel One.

Political backlash
Many newspapers, Web sites and radio stations, which have escaped the
government control that has settled over Russia’s mass media, called the plan a step backward for democracy.

The Kommersant daily newspaper said “the only representative of the executive branch who will be elected by all the people will be the president of Russia.”

Izvestia commented that the plan reflected both the desire for a more efficient state and disillusionment with democracy.

“Over the 15 years of its new life, civil society in Russia hasn’t really awakened,” the newspaper said. “And the president has decided that in conditions demanding fast, effective, and often urgent decisions, it’s better not to have such a society — because the authorities are uncertain of the results of waking it.”

Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of the few independent lawmakers to have been elected to the State Duma, accused Putin of violating the constitution. He told reporters that the Constitutional Court had established in 1996 that governors could only be popularly elected.

Human rights advocate Lyudmila Alexeyeva told the Vremya Novostei daily that the final subordination of the regions to the center “kills the very idea of the federation.”

Stanislav Belkovsky, an analyst considered close to the former KGB officers in Putin’s administration, said the president was “liquidating regional politics.”

“In the current situation, the transition from federalism to a unitary state is political suicide,” Vremya Novostei quoted him as saying. “What’s happening now is the biggest mistake of Vladimir Putin’s rule.”

Most of Putin’s initiatives had little to do with increasing Russians’ security and everything to do with furthering the Kremlin’s clout.

Putin’s mistrust for local officials runs so deep, Izvestia said, “he has decided on an extreme step: finally to take responsibility himself for events in the country.”

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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