Steve Chapman
Moscow is not a city of ghosts, but on Saturday, tens of thousands of figures were seen marching in the Russian capital chanting, "We exist! We exist!" That might seem like an exercise in the obvious. But the crowd thought a reminder was in order for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has generally regarded his critics as though they were invisible.

He can see them now. In last week's parliamentary election, his United Russia Party suffered a humiliation, losing 77 of its 315 seats and getting less than a majority of all votes -- down from 64 percent four years ago.

It's embarrassing enough to do poorly in an honest election. Putin's party managed to crater despite vigorous measures to rig the vote. In the province of Chechnya, United Russia somehow garnered 99 percent at the polls.

In the city of Rostov-on-Don, state TV reported its share of the vote at 146 percent.

Putin and his sidekick, President Dmitry Medvedev, defended the integrity of the election, but they were a tiny chorus. Opposition groups posted video of ballot-stuffing and other tactics that would make a Chicago precinct captain smile. One man said he was paid to cast 45 ballots for United Russia.

A Russian election watchdog group, Golos, said United Russia "achieved the majority mandate by falsification." International observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe found "frequent procedural violations and instances of apparent manipulation."

They reported, "The contest was also slanted in favor of the ruling party, the election administration lacked independence, most media were partial and state authorities interfered unduly at different levels." Oh, in case Putin is reading: They didn't mean that as praise.

When protesters took to the streets, he was reduced to claiming the demonstrations occurred at the behest of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She had pronounced the balloting "neither free nor fair" but had never before been known for her ability to incite Russians (or Americans) to rise up against their leaders.

Putin served two four-year terms as president, but the Constitution barred him from a third consecutive term. So in 2008, he traded jobs with Medvedev, whose assignment, ably performed, was to let his patron remain in control. In September, Putin announced he would run for president in March for a six-year term, as the constitution now stipulates.

If things go his way, Putin could stay in power until 2024. By then -- you never know -- he might somehow contrive to stay longer.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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