After the shocking terrorist takeover of a school in Beslan -- a tragedy that resulted in more than 300 dead, many of them children -- analysts predicted that it would be a turning point for Russian policy toward Chechnya and the northern Caucasus. Yet few expected President Vladimir Putin's response on Monday, in which he proposed eviscerating Russia's already beleaguered democratic institutions and further concentrating political power in the executive apparatus.
Mr. Putin justified these measures as necessary to unify Russia in the fight against terror. In reality, they're politically defensive manoeuvres intended to deflect criticism of his failure to win the unwinnable war in Chechnya.
Mr. Putin is in an extremely difficult position. Russia has suffered one horrific terrorist attack after another by groups based in and around Chechnya. His military and security forces have been unable to stop this violence, even as the attacks' frequency and intensity has increased: Immediately before the Beslan massacre, suicide bombers downed two domestic airliners flying from Moscow. Twice in 2004, bombs exploded on the busy Moscow subway. In December of 2003, a bombing attack destroyed a train in southern Russia. In July of 2003, a suicide bomber hit a rock festival outside Moscow. In October of 2002, terrorists took hundreds hostage in a Moscow theatre (more than 120 people ultimately died).
While such attacks have been occurring for several years, they've now reached a qualitatively new level, and Mr. Putin must respond. No political leader can stand by while extremist bands repeatedly terrorize citizens.
However, Mr. Putin's initial and, at first glance, most dramatic policy proposals seemed strangely ill-conceived. On Monday, he announced plans to restructure the political system by ending the popular election of regional governors and by having the entire Duma (the lower house of parliament) chosen through party-list voting.
Both measures would concentrate power in Mr. Putin's executive office. By directly choosing regional governors himself (albeit with the "approval" of regional legislatures), he would further ensure the governors' personal loyalty. Electing the entire Duma on a party-list basis would increase the already heavily dominant representation of the Putin-affiliated party, United Russia. It is hard to see how appointing a governor in St. Petersburg or keeping independent politicians out of the Duma will combat Chechen terror.
Critics in Russia and abroad have decried Mr. Putin for cynically using the Beslan attack as an excuse to destroy democracy in Russia. His actions do reflect the broader pattern of creeping authoritarianism since he assumed Russia's presidency, as regional leaders, political institutions, wealthy economic "oligarchs" and the mass media have all come under increasingly heavy-handed executive control.
And yet, there is more to it than this. Mr. Putin's earlier policies had achieved stunning success in co-opting the regional governors and the Duma. The proposed changes aren't a revolutionary power grab so much as a further institutionalization of the influence that Mr. Putin already possesses. The fawning support that most current regional governors and Duma members immediately expressed for his latest proposals illustrates this sad truth. In an active democracy, these politicians would be screaming for Mr. Putin's head. Instead, they will rubber-stamp his changes in a public acknowledgment of their own impotence.
So why did Mr. Putin feel the need to take these measures at this time?
His proposed restructuring of the political system benefits him in two ways. First, it may shore up his public support for the moment, as it appears to be a radical step taken in response to the Beslan tragedy. Mr. Putin is not merely a power-hungry politician, but a thinking national leader deeply frustrated by his own failure to resolve the complex situation in Chechnya and the terror it has spawned. He recognizes the need to do something -- anything.
But second, by further subverting democracy, Mr. Putin insulates himself from the potential political consequences of his inability to end the Chechen conflict. There are unfortunately no easy solutions to the "Chechen problem," and he has come to realize this.
After suffering through two bloody civil wars, interrupted by a short period of de facto independence notable for its criminalization and chaos, Chechnya is a region in complete disarray -- fractured, still separatist, and with few legitimate leaders. Terror is merely a symptom of these deeper problems. In his speech on Monday, Mr. Putin accepted the blame for these failures, and finally acknowledged publicly that the dismal socioeconomic situation in Chechnya has exacerbated the situation.
So although he doesn't need more formal political power now, he may in the future. Mr. Putin has backed himself into a corner over Chechnya, because he built his public reputation on ending the conflict decisively by taking a tough military stance. In one famous statement uttered in October, 1999, at the beginning of the second Chechen war, he promised to "wipe out" the Chechen fighters "in their outhouses." His initial source of political legitimacy has become his Achilles heel.
Ultimately, the more Mr. Putin consolidates his power, the more he will bear personal responsibility for failing to stop terrorist attacks or bring peace to Chechnya. The Russian public may eventually run out of patience.
When they do, they'll find that he has so weakened Russia's democratic institutions, its citizens have no effective political recourse. As his leadership has demonstrated, democracy and security are not contradictory goals; both can be undermined simultaneously.
Juliet Johnson, associate professor of political science at McGill University, is the author of A Fistful of Rubles: The Rise and Fall of the Russian Banking System.