Today's date:
Spring 2008

Ayatollah Putin

Garry Kasparov, is a former world chess champion and resides in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Moscow -- Perhaps the most damning of all are the official statistics in last December's elections were in places like Chechnya and Dagestan where there was little monitoring. With an outlandish 99.5 percent voter turnout, 99 percent of Chechen votes went to United Russia. Do not forget this is a party led by (Russian President Vladimir) Putin, the author of the second Chechen war that razed the Chechen capital Grozny to the ground less than a decade ago.

My wife commented darkly that the only ones who didn't vote in Chechnya were those who died on election day. (Or perhaps they voted twice.) As usual, the game is given away by lackeys who are too eager to please their Kremlin masters. One can only imagine what the United Russia bosses think of Hugo Chavez losing by a measly one percent on the same day. Amateur!

Meanwhile, despite the absence of real alternatives on the ballot and with all the chicanery included, United Russia barely topped 50 percent in St. Petersburg and Moscow. It's no coincidence that the residents of these cities have much greater access to news not provided by the Kremlin thanks to greater Internet penetration and Ekho of Moscow, the one radio station where all views are still heard.

It was a clear indication that Putin considered these elections important when he gave several frenzied speeches to get out the vote.

The vicious language he used could barely be called coded as he warned against "enemies within" and "jackals" supported by the West. It was less Russian than what we might call Putinese, with a vintage Austrian-German accent. A week before the elections, our peaceful protest march was broken up by riot police and a dozen of my supporters and I spent five days in jail after a trial that would have made Kafka blush. (Among other things, the charge I was jailed on didn't appear in the arresting officers' handwritten testimony, appearing magically in the typed court version.)

Why bother making such an effort when the Kremlin's control is apparently so absolute already? First we should recall that Stalin held elections in 1937 during The Terror. The results in this election weren't in any doubt either, confirming our return to the rule of an all-powerful single state party. But the elections were important to Putin's regime for several reasons.

Putin's close relationship with Western leaders serves as a guarantee to his ruling oligarchs back home that their money is safe. Were he to discard the last vestiges of democracy too blatantly, this cozy situation might end. We can only wait and see if this latest charade is enough to keep Europe and the EU nations from finally taking action, such as turning the G-7 back into what it originally stood for: seven great industrial democracies.

The first indications are bad. Nicolas Sarkozy touted himself as a tough guy but appears to have gone weak in the knees after a few drinks with Putin. The French president wasted no time in calling his counterpart to congratulate him on his big win. Putin watches these signals from the West carefully, looking for signs of any real pressure. Most comments weren't favorable, especially in the media, but how much danger could there be if Sarkozy and old buddy Tony Blair called him?

The other purpose of the Kremlin campaign was to provide the regime with pseudo-democratic cover to hold onto power after the March 2 presidential elections through his handpicked candidate, Dimitry Medvedev.

After Putin's friendly visit to Iran in October, I wondered if he was considering a new title for himself, one above the petty responsibilities of prime minister or even the old grandeur of the General Secretary of the Party. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Putin?