The Man Behind the Curtain

In the movie The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s little terrier, Toto pulls aside a curtain to reveal that the awesome “wizard” is really a little man frantically pulling levers to create an illusion of power. Moscow is not quite the “Emerald City” — but Vladimir Putin is certainly acting like the wizard — and seems intent on trying to re-create the “Iron Curtain.” Worse still, leaders here in the United States and in Western Europe appear to be as fearful as Dorothy’s craven lion in looking at what is really going on behind the curtain.

In December, the editors of Time magazine glossed over Mr. Putin’s repression of political dissidents, interference in the affairs of other nations and willingness to support Iranian nuclear ambitions to choose the Russian strongman as their “Person of the Year.” Since then the former KGB officer has made it clear to anyone who cares to look that he intends to remain in power once his term as president expires in May. The old Soviet leaders of yesteryear would be proud to see the political machinations taking place in Moscow.

Mr. Putin, is barred by the Russian constitution from seeking a third consecutive term as president. Undaunted by such a statutory trifle, he has decided to run as a United Russia Party candidate for a seat in the Russian Duma. Once elected to the parliament it is foregone that he will then become Prime Minister — a post from which he can continue to exercise control over international and domestic affairs of state. To ensure success in this venture he has hand-picked as his presidential successor, Dmitri Medvedev, currently Russia’s deputy prime minister and head of the country’s state-run natural gas monopoly, Gazprom. If all goes as planned, Mr. Putin would be able to reclaim the Russian presidency in 2012.

Apparently not satisfied that this outcome is all but guaranteed, Mr. Putin has also had Russia’s Central Electoral Commission jump into the fray. The commission, headed by Vladimir Churov, a Putin crony, is supposed to ensure that multi-party and multi-candidate elections in post-Soviet Russia are carried out fairly. But if the commission ever did — it doesn’t now.

Last week, the Russian Election Commission denied a place on the March 2, 2008, Presidential ballot for Mr. Putin’s principal opponent, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. Mr. Kasyanov, a close associate of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, is known for his efforts to implement economic reforms — and as a vocal critic of Mr. Putin’s consolidation of power in Moscow. In rejecting the ballot application, the Electoral Commission ruled that 13 percent of the signatures on Mr. Kasyanov’s filing petitions were “invalid.” Kremlin authorities have since threatened Mr. Kasyanov’s supporters with the loss of their jobs or incarceration if they protest the decision.

The Election Commission has also decided that only 70 observer-monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) would be permitted to observe the election – and that their visas would not be issued until February 28, three days prior to the election. In 2004, the OSCE sent 387 observers a month in advance to cover the Russian presidential elections. But that was then — and this is now.  

Moscow’s blatant interference in the electoral process prompted Curtis Budden, a spokesman for the OSCE to plaintively note that the European watchdog group might not bother to send any observers in March because, “We are not satisfied with their conditions since they don’t allow meaningful observation.” Prior to last December’s parliamentary elections, Moscow imposed similar restrictions and the OSCE refused to send observers and subsequently criticized the elections as unfair.

In what may prove to be a final effort to capture the attention of western policy makers, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev told reporters this week that “something is wrong with our elections, and our electoral system needs a major adjustment.” Just to make sure we all would know what’s “wrong,” he added that the upcoming election result was, “predictable from the outset” and “predetermined by the enormous role that Vladimir Putin has played.”

That’s not all that was “predictable” or “predetermined.” Though Mr. Gorbachev’s remarks were broadcast around the world — they were all but ignored in European capitals and Washington. Russian television viewers never got to see them at all.

Last December, on the eve of the elections for the Duma, Mr. Putin made a televised appeal in support of his United Russia party candidates. “Please, do not think that everything is predetermined and the pace of development we have attained, the direction of our movement toward success will be maintained automatically by itself,” said Mr. Putin. “This is a dangerous illusion.”

It turns out that Vladimir Putin, like the Wizard of Oz, is a master of illusion. Where is Toto when we need him?