WASHINGTON -- 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 certainly is acting like the wizard, and he seems intent on trying to recreate the Iron Curtain. Worse still, leaders here in the United States and in Europe appear to be as fearful as Dorothy's craven lion in looking at what really is going on behind the curtain.
In December, the editors of Time magazine glossed over 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.
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 then will 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, Putin would be able to reclaim the Russian presidency in 2012.
Apparently not satisfied that this outcome is all but guaranteed, Putin also has had Russia's Central Electoral Commission jump into the fray. The commission, headed by Vladimir Churov, a Putin crony, is supposed to ensure that multiparty 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 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 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.