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Putin Approaches a Decade in Power

His contemporary Hugo Chavez in Venezuela has been doing the authoritarian-political prisoner thing for more than a decade, but Vladimir Putin is not too far behind.  With any luck, these fellows could emulate the successful grip on power of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who has been on for some 22 years.  Today Garry Kasparov has a column in the Wall Street Journal taking a look at the past nine years of Putinist Russia, focusing both on the important examples of the Sochi elections and the second trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky as signs that true reform and progress has not yet arrived to Russia.  Many people who take the time to read blogs on Russia are tired of Kasparov’s sometimes predicatable criticism … however I think this one is well argued.

Mr. Nemtsov did appear on the ballot, a rare feat for an opposition candidate in Russia. But this was no demonstration of Mr. Medvedev’s “liberalization.” The Kremlin left nothing to chance. Early voting (which involves ballots being cast before Election Day and held in a “secure” location) is typically exercised by just a handful of voters in Russia. But in Sochi, more than 25% of the ballots cast for mayor were early votes — roughly 100 times higher than in previous Russian elections. More than 90% of these votes went to Mr. Pakhomov. He won the race with 77% of the vote. There were other irregularities. At one polling station the number of ballots tallied was 250 higher than the total number of ballots distributed.

Simply appointing mayors would violate the European Charter, towhich Russia is a signatory, so elections will continue. But just incase United Russia ever comes up short, Mr. Medvedev is pushing a newlaw that will allow city councils to remove elected mayors by atwo-thirds vote with no appeal to a court.

Some of Mr. Putin’s opponents cannot be eliminated simply by riggingan election. The new show trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky (once Russia’srichest man) and his business partner, Platon Lebedev, is a case inpoint. Terrified by the scheduled 2011 release of this clearly unbrokenman, the Putin regime has decided to extend Mr. Khodorkovsky’ssentence. The new charges accuse Mr. Khodorkovsky’s old company, Yukos,of stealing all the oil it ever produced.

The prosecution has no answer to Mr. Khodorkovsky’s question why, ifYukos was a criminal organization, its properties weren’t seized andinvestigated instead of quickly auctioned off to Mr. Putin’s allies?Eager to see the surreal spectacle for myself, I attended the trial inMoscow last week.

It has been obvious from the moment of his arrest in 2003 that Mr.Khodorkovsky’s prison term will be no shorter — and I’d wager not muchlonger — than Mr. Putin’s reign. Knowing full well the court willdeliver whatever verdict is demanded by the Kremlin, the prosecutionmust nevertheless read its lines in the play. And it does resemble ascripted drama, as the judge has precluded the defense from challengingdocuments presented by the prosecution during the trial.

One of the prosecutors attempted to insult the defense attorneys byquoting Blaise Pascal, who once wrote something to the effect that anadvocate has much greater confidence in his cause when retained for alarge fee. During the break I asked her if she knew another of Pascal’slines: “Unable to fortify justice, they have justified force.”

There are optimistic rumors in the West of a potential rift betweenMessrs. Medvedev and Putin. With the steep drop in energy prices, theRussian economy in free fall, and the need to find a scapegoat, a clashis likely. But it will not be because the two men differ significantlyin matters of morality and power. We have seen enough to recognize thatthey are both enemies of democracy, open competition, and freeexpression.