Something Is Very Wrong With Russia

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First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev polled at 80 percent in a recent survey, compared with 1 percent for the only opposition candidate then in the running, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. But like the former Soviet regime it increasingly resembles, the Kremlin is leaving nothing to chance. On Sunday, Kasyanov was excluded from the presidential ballot on the pretext that thousands of the 2 million signatures he had gathered were fraudulent.

The next day Moscow announced ground rules for international election observers that limit their numbers to 70 and stipulate that they can arrive in Russia only after Feb. 27, which, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, leaves too little time to monitor the election effectively. These limitations virtually ensure that the OSCE election watchdog organization will not be able to judge the fairness of the election.

Moreover, Medvedev announced yesterday that he would not participate in any election debates.

The most interesting aspect of this heavy-handed strategy is that it is entirely unnecessary. Thanks to the government's control of television, its relentless propaganda and the country's oil-fueled economic boom, a large majority of Russians are more than happy to vote for Medvedev or anyone else President Vladimir Putin might point to.

Putin could have permitted Kasyanov, former chess champion Garry Kasparov and other opposition figures to run, allowed in thousands of international observers and ordered Medvedev to participate in televised debates -- and still his candidate would have won handily. In that case, he could have claimed to have held a democratic election, and many around the world would have agreed.

Yet Putin insists on staging a Potemkin vote that no serious observer outside of Russia can regard as credible. He evidently prefers to incur the scorn of Western democrats than allow someone such as Kasyanov to speak freely even for a few minutes on Russian state television. Putin would rather have the OSCE boycott the election than hold a free and fair vote in which exact outcome could not be planned in advance.

Putin's embrace of the Soviet political model reveals his growing contempt for Western opinion and his lack of interest in maintaining cooperative relations with the European Union and the United States. It also shows that Russia's political system, as Kasyanov put it, "as in the U.S.S.R., will not respond to change either from inside, or from outside." No wonder that Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union's last leader, felt moved to speak out. "Something wrong is happening with our elections," he told the Interfax agency.

But it's not only the elections that are wrong; the entire system that Gorbachev took apart is being meticulously reconstructed.

This comment appeared as an editorial in The Washington Post.