The Net Tightens

Monday, November 26, 2007

VLADIMIR PUTIN'S propaganda machine likes to portray the Russian president as serenely confident, basking in the adoration of a grateful public that implores him to defy the constitution and serve another term as national leader. And by all rights, Russians should be cheerful. With oil prices booming, their economy is growing and prosperity is spreading from Moscow and St. Petersburg into the hinterland.

Yet how to square that image of serenity with the behavior of a petty and paranoid tyrant? Here are a few bulletins from the weekend before scheduled parliamentary elections: In Moscow, the chess genius turned opposition leader Garry Kasparov was arrested during a peaceful political rally and sentenced to five days in jail. A pro-Kremlin youth group supplied an amplified soundtrack of taped, cackling laughter during the event, and demonstrators, were beaten by police. In Nazran, Oleg Orlov, the head of Memorial, Russia's leading human rights organization, was kidnapped and beaten, along with three television journalists, apparently by law enforcement agents of some kind. Provincial authorities simply deny that anything at all happened. In nearby Daghestan, a leading opposition candidate, Farid Babayev of the Yabloko party, died after being shot in front of his apartment building. Yesterday, opposition candidates Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, and Nikita Belykh were taken into custody, and police used batons against activists while breaking up a rally in St. Petersburg.

For nearly two decades now, the seal of good housekeeping for elections in post-Communist countries has been provided, or withheld, by election monitors of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. In Russia's Dec. 2 contest, for only the second time -- the first was in Albania in 1996 -- there will be no monitors. The Kremlin made it impossible for them to come by delaying invitations, withholding visas and the like. No wonder that, according to a recent poll by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, nearly two-thirds of Russians do not believe the election will be conducted honestly, and fewer than one-fifth believe the outcome will represent the will of the electorate.

The same poll, though, showed that a majority of Russians are optimistic about the future, which brings us back to the central mystery: Why does Mr. Putin feel he must govern by censor and by billy club?

© 2007 The Washington Post Company