The last Soviet leader and the first post-Soviet Russian president have waded into the debate swirling around President Vladimir Putin’s proposals to end popular elections for the governors in Russia’s 89 regions and abolish State Duma seats for deputies elected in single-mandate constituencies. Gorbachev criticized the moves, while Boris Yeltsin appeared to give them his blessing or, at least, refrain from any overt criticism of his successor.
In a commentary published in Moskovskie novosti and its English-language version, Moscow News, Mikhail Gorbachev wrote: “I’m certain that today, the actions of the government must rely on the society. How can you stamp out corruption without a normal parliament or free press? Without control on the part of the society? But there is no movement in this direction. The reverse is happening. Under the slogan of the war on terrorism, it is being proposed to sharply limit democratic freedoms, to deprive citizens of the opportunity to directly express their attitude toward the government in free elections. It is being proposed that we consent to the appointment of governors and giving up elections in single-mandate districts. This comes now, when we already have mostly pocket parties . . . Such a system definitely won’t aid in fighting terrorism.”
The former Soviet leader also took issue with Putin’s assertion, made during a September 6 meeting with foreign journalists and academics, that there was no connection between Russian policies in Chechnya and the Beslan hostage seizure (see the Guardian [U.K], September 7). “Unlike the president . . . I believe that the terrorist acts of the recent weeks are directly tied to the military operations in the Caucasus,” Gorbachev wrote. “Back in 1994, during the first war in Chechnya, I could see clearly what catastrophic consequences it would bring. Unfortunately, I was right . . . That means that once again, we must search for political solutions, negotiate with the middle-of-the-road militants, separating them from the unappeasable extremists” (Moskovskie novosti, September 17; Moscow News, September 16). On September 16, President Putin once again ruled out such negotiations. “The atrocities we encountered in Beslan give us the full moral right to insist that the people who are opposing Russia are part of the ‘terrorist internationale’,” Putin told reporters in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana. “There is only one way to deal with these people: with legality and toughness” (Reuters, September 16).
In an excerpt of a commentary by Boris Yeltsin published by Moscow News, the former president wrote that the Beslan tragedy means that the authorities “must act harshly and quickly, in accordance with the bloody challenge from our new enemy, named Terrorism.” He added, “Still, I firmly believe that the measures that the country’s leadership will undertake after Beslan will remain within the framework of democratic freedoms that have become Russia’s most valuable achievement over the past decade. We will not give up on the letter of the law, and most importantly, the spirit of the Constitution our country had voted for at the public referendum in 1993. If only because the stifling of freedom and the curtailing of democratic rights is a victory by the terrorists” (Moscow News, September 16).
While this would appear to endorse Putin’s initiatives, Yeltsin’s comments were sufficiently ambiguous as to elicit clashing interpretations. For example, the website of Tsenter TV, the television channel financed by the Moscow city government, headlined an item on Yeltsin’s comments: “The former guarantor supports the current guarantor” (TVC.ru, September 16). But MosNews, an English-language website that is a partner project of Moscow News and Gazeta.ru, headlined a story: “Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin Speak out Against Putin’s Reforms” (MosNews, September 16). Moskovskie novosti is set to publish the full text of Yeltsin’s commentary today (September 17).
The comments by Gorbachev and Yeltsin followed those of other notables, including President George W. Bush, who earlier this week urged Putin to “uphold the principles of democracy” while fighting terrorism. “I’m also concerned about the decisions that are being made in Russia that could undermine democracy in Russia; that great countries, great democracies have a balance of power between central governments and local governments,” Bush said. He added that a “balance of power” is also needed “within central governments, between the executive branch and the legislative branch and the judicial branch” (Reuters, September 15).
Russian democrats, meanwhile, continue to criticize Putin’s overhaul of the political system. Committee 2008-Free Choice, the democratic opposition group founded and headed by chess champion Garry Kasparov, released a statement on September 16 accusing President Putin of carrying out a “constitutional coup” and a “program of dismantling the fundamental institutions of democracy in Russia.” “It is completely clear that the measures the president is insisting on have nothing to do with the fight against world terrorism,” the statement read. “Vladimir Putin is proposing formally to consolidate an authoritarian regime, which is not in the least capable of either providing security for Russian citizens or guaranteeing the integrity of the Russian state. On the contrary: the realization of such plans will mean, in essence, that Russia is capitulating before terrorism, having submitted to the destruction of its constitutional system. The terrorists could not have dreamed of the kind of quick and easy success that the Russian government is prepared to give them” (Newsru.com, September 16).