Oliver North

Last week, the Russian Election Commission denied a place on the March 2, 2008, presidential ballot for Putin's principal opponent, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. 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 Putin's consolidation of power in Moscow. In rejecting the ballot application, the Electoral Commission ruled that 13 percent of the signatures on Kasyanov's filing petitions were "invalid." Kremlin authorities have since threatened Kasyanov's supporters with the loss of their jobs or incarceration if they protest the decision.

The Election Commission also has decided that only 70 observer-monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe would be permitted to observe the election -- and that their visas would not be issued until Feb. 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 note plaintively 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 policymakers, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev told reporters this week, "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 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, 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 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?

Oliver North

Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.