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IN THE NEWS - Putin Calls for Changes in Russia's Political System - 2004-09-18

Broadcast: September 18, 2004

This is Steve Ember with In the News in VOA Special English.

This week, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a plan for changes in the political system in Russia. The measures would increase the powers of the central government. Mister Putin said the proposals are needed to improve security. He said those responsible for terrorist acts seek to ruin Russia.

Earlier this month, more than three hundred people were killed at Middle School Number One in the southern town of Beslan. Half were children. The hostage crisis followed bombings on two Russian airplanes and near an underground train station in Moscow. One-hundred people were killed in those attacks.

A Chechen rebel leader, Shamil Basayev, reportedly claimed responsibility for all the attacks in a letter Friday on a Web site. The letter threatened more violence and urged Russia to recognize independence for Chechnya. In Moscow, President Putin said Friday that Russia is preparing what he called pre-emptive action against terrorists. He said it would follow Russian and international law.

Mister Putin announced the proposed changes Monday. He said Russia needs a single anti-terrorism agency that is able not only to deal with attacks but also to work to prevent them. He said the new agency should have the power to destroy criminals in their hideouts and, if necessary, in other countries.

Mister Putin also called for changes in the rules for electing parliament. His plan would end local elections that now fill half of the four hundred fifty seats in the lower house, the Duma. Instead, all members would be elected from party lists chosen by Russia's main national parties. The changes must be approved by the Duma, which is controlled by supporters of Mister Putin.

Also, the Russian leader called for local governors to be nominated by the president and approved by local parliaments. In recent years, the eighty-nine governors have been elected directly by the people.

Critics say the changes would violate Russia's Constitution. Some say they do not believe the moves will really help fight terrorism. They say the government is using the recent attacks as a chance to expand its power. Mister Putin faces little organized opposition.

For ten years, Russian troops have attempted to crush the independence movement for Chechnya and its mostly Muslim population. Russian officials say there is evidence that international terrorists are involved.

The United States says it supports a political solution to the Chechen conflict. It also says it supports Russia in its struggle against terrorism. But American officials say they are concerned that the changes will harm democracy in Russia.

In the News, in VOA Special English, was written by Cynthia Kirk. This is Steve Ember.