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Putin Announces Dramatic Restructuring of Government

By Steven Lee Myers

The New York Times -- MOSCOW

President Vladimir V. Putin ordered a stunning overhaul of Russia’s political system on Monday in what he called an effort to unite the country against terrorism. If enacted, as expected, the proposals would strengthen his already pervasive control over the legislative branch and regional governments.

Putin, meeting in special session with Cabinet ministers and regional government leaders, outlined what would be the most sweeping political restructuring -- and his most striking single step to consolidate power -- in Russia in more than a decade. Critics immediately said it would violate the constitution and stifle what political opposition remains.

Under Putin’s proposals, which he said required only legislative approval and not constitutional amendments, the governors or leaders of the country’s 89 regions would no longer be elected by popular vote but rather by local legislatures -- and only after the president’s nomination.

Seats in the lower house of the federal parliament, or Duma, would be elected entirely on national party slates, eliminating district races across the country that now decide half of the parliament’s composition. In last December’s elections, those races accounted for all of the independents and liberals serving in the Duma.

After the school siege in Beslan, the downing of two passenger planes and other terrorist attacks that have shaken the country, Putin argued once again that Russia was ill-prepared to fight terrorism and said that the country needed a more unified political system. His proposals on Monday, however, made it clear that for him, unity meant a consolidation of power in the executive branch.

“Those who inspire, organize and carry out terrorist acts are striving to disintegrate the country,” Putin said in televised remarks that the state channels rebroadcast repeatedly, in their entirety, through the day and evening. “They strive for the break up of the state, for the ruin of Russia. I am sure that the unity of the country is the main prerequisite for victory over terror.”

Across the short spectrum of political opposition in today’s Russia,- reactions ranged from stunned disbelief to helpless anger.

Gennadi A. Zyuganov, the leader of the main opposition party, the Communists, called the proposals “ill conceived.” Sergei S. Mitrokhin, a leader of the liberal Yabloko party, said they represented “the elimination of the last links in a system of checks and balances.”

Mikhail M. Zadornov, an independent deputy who was elected from a district in southern Moscow last year, said that rather than unifying Russians against terror, the proposals would simply disenfranchise them from politics and the state.

“All these measures,” he said in a telephone interview, “mean we are coming back to the USSR.”

The electoral changes require the approval of parliament, but because the party loyal to Putin, United Russia, controls more than two-thirds of the 450 seats, that is almost a foregone conclusion. Mitrokhin said that although Putin’s proposals “contradict the letter and the spirit of the constitution,” challenges to them would be futile.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “in Russia there is no independent parliament and no independent judiciary.”