I was in Moscow last month the day Vladimir Putin was reelected in whatever is the opposite of a cliffhanger of an election. His victory was as predictable as it was overwhelming. Months of media suppression and harassment of opposition candidates helped the former KGB officer (plucked from obscurity by Boris Yeltsin in 1999) secure 71 percent of the vote. And documented instances of vote fraud and coercion ensured that turnout crossed the fifty percent threshold needed to avoid a new election.
One of my favorite stories involved patients in Moscow’s Psychiatric Clinic No. 4 receiving ballots pre-marked for Putin. (This led one of Putin’s opponents to quip, “By 2008, the whole country will be voting according to the same principle as in Psychiatric Hospital No. 4.”) Then there were the students at an aerospace university who faced being thrown out of their dorms if they didn’t cast a ballot. Or the officers in a local military unit who were cabled by the Defense Ministry with instructions to report when they and their family members had voted.
Most Western commentators–and independent Russian groups monitoring the election–condemned the Kremlin’s heavy-handed tactics. But they didn’t seem to bother leading GOP apparatchik Trent Lott. Arriving in Moscow just a few days after Putin’s reelection, Lott told the Russian news service Novosti, “I would like to congratulate Mr. Putin and the delegates of the State Duma with their victory. I would like to learn how we could reach the same level of support for Republicans and President Bush for the elections in our country.”