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Russia Closes the Curtain

Putin/Medvedev billboard

Vladimir Putin and his successor Dmitri Medvedev face out from a giant billboard hanging from the Hotel Moscow next to Red Square.

Three hundred years ago, Tsar Peter I (Peter the Great) opened a window on Russia to Europe and the West. By the 20th century, under his communist successors, the Iron Curtain was erected to cover that window. In the 21st century, the authorities are at it again, trying to draw an impenetrable shade across the window Peter the Great built.

The Russian presidential election on March 2, which many Russians consider a farce put on for the West, is a curtain that is almost impossible to see through. Observers need facts not conjecture to charge the Russian authorities with a crime against democracy. And the Kremlin is playing a skillful game in blocking the international community from making any assessment of how the elections are being conducted.

In the last month, there have been at least two high-profile examples of Western institutions being denied access to monitor the elections freely. The first dark cloud over Russian statehood appeared in early February. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) pulled out of election monitoring after Russia laid down impossible ground rules for participation. The Kremlin would only allow European monitors a few days' access to the campaign while the European body asked for three weeks to properly do its job. Negotiations quickly reached a stalemate: What the Europeans felt was not enough, the Russians felt was excessive.

"[They] see no need for any [election observers] at all in some countries, while they take a schoolteacher approach to others. Let them teach their wives to make soup," Putin said.

At his last press conference as president, Vladimir Putin made it quite clear where he stood on so-called international interference.

"I don't think anyone should be tempted to make ultimatums to Russia today, particularly an organization called ODIHR, which doesn't sound great in Russian," Putin said. "We have invited 100 observers, and we are ready to provide them with every opportunity to carry out their work. They [the international community] think 100 [observers are] too few. Do they need to come here a year in advance, three weeks in advance or what? They seem to have a lot of demands," Putin continued. "They send 16 observers to one country, 20 to another; [they] see no need for any at all in some countries, while they take a schoolteacher approach to others. Let them teach their wives to make soup."

Putin was telling the world, "Look, we offered you access, but you refused." But given the terms offered by the Kremlin, many organizations and countries declined to send their teams. Experts from Germany, Spain, France, UK, the Nordic Council and the Central Election Office of Hungary will also not be in Russia come March 2.

In a show of solidarity, but under the diplomatic pretext of "needing to conduct our own primary campaigns," the U.S. Federal Election Committee also refrained from sending experts.

This poster in a Moscow storefront reads, "Vote! Don't be neurotic."

But even if these groups adhered to the Kremlin's conditions and were prepared to come for just a few days, an event here a week ago makes me wonder if the U.S. delegation could have been allowed to enter the country unhindered. Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth was set to make a presentation in Moscow February 20 about how Russian authorities are stifling the work of non-governmental organizations, but he was denied a visa.

When I reached Roth by phone, he told me, "[Russia's] Ministry of Foreign Affairs knew that I was planning to attend the press conference and changed the requirements for me to get a visa. He said it was the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union that a Human Rights Watch representative had been denied a Russian visa. "The last time this happened to me was in 1997, when I was refused a visa to go to Nigeria," he said.

The majority of election observers in Moscow this Sunday come from countries in the Russian Commonwealth of Independent States -- countries that treat Russia like an older brother and that are hardly objective.

When I asked him if he saw a direct link between being denied a visa and the approaching elections, he said that on the eve of any important event, the Russian foreign affairs agency always pays excessive, somewhat unhealthy attention to human rights activists from abroad. "This year, [we are operating] in the context of cooler relations between the two nations. Clearly, we have an undemocratic transfer of power to a successor in Russia -- preferably taking place without witnesses. Under these circumstances, being denied a visa looks perfectly natural." Even though human rights advocates are not necessarily being locked up, Roth believes that the overall state of democracy in Russia is back to where it was during Soviet times.

The majority of election observers who will be on hand in Moscow this Sunday come from countries in the Russian Commonwealth of Independent States. These countries tend to treat Russia like an older brother and are hardly in a position to provide objectivity -- another confirmation that the Kremlin won't tolerate criticism.

Certainly, there will be some international representatives present, from Poland, China and Japan, for example. But these nations have particular economic interests in Russia, so the quiet, calm transfer of power from Putin to his chosen successor, Dmitri Medvedev, will surely happen without a ripple of real protest.

With my hand on my heart as a Russian, I am certainly ashamed to acknowledge that Russia needs monitors at the election. But you have to earn trust. Not so long ago, Russia didn't have to prove its commitment to democracy. Now, apparently, there is no other way to deal with the lack of democracy here, except to wall ourselves off.

The curtain is being drawn once again, and a long night is descending on Russia.

Russian Translation: Lydia Bryans

Reporter, Artyom Khan

Moscow-based correspondent, Artyom Khan.

Artyom Khan was born in the Siberian city of Omsk in 1973. For the past eight years, Khan has lived in Moscow, first working for the radio station Moscow Speaking and later for the Russian News Service. In May 2007, he left the Russian News Service in protest over the editorial policies of the station's new management, which decreed that 50 percent of the station's news must be positive. Since his departure, he has been working as a correspondent for Deutsche Welle.

Russia: Let the Campaigning Begin, Sort of
In Artyom Khan's first dispatch about the Russian election campaign, he visits his hometown of Omsk in Siberia, where some are asking, "What campaign?"

Who Is Mr. Medvedev?
"No one in Russia doubts that Dmitri Medvedev will be the next president," writes Artyom Khan in his second dispatch from Moscow. "That became clear last December, when Putin announced him as his chosen successor." But who is he? Even Russians don't really know.

Russia: Putin's Plan
These dispatches are part of our coverage for the recent FRONTLINE/World broadcast, "Russia: Putin's Plan," which aired on PBS February 26. Watch the video online.