Game, set, match

November 27, 2007

This Sunday will feature both the election of a new parliament in Russia and the conclusion of the Davis Cup finals in Portland, which pit Russia against the United States. The people who run international tennis are in a cold sweat because of mushrooming rumors of match-fixing, many of which seem to lead back to Russia and one of which touches upon the Russian star Nikolay Davydenko, who will be on the court in Oregon unless his mysterious foot soreness should suddenly flare up again.

The people running the elections, however, are not so worried about a dishonest result; they've already taken great care to ensure that it happens.

President Vladimir V. Putin's United Russia party would have had a lock on victory anyway, because the Russian economy is so strong thanks to the oil it exports, and because the rules are completely stacked in its favor, and because its friends in the press (and they are legion) portray opposition candidates as stooges of the United States.

But that didn't seem sufficient, so in the waning days of the campaign, a newspaper has been shut down and a regional opposition candidate murdered and the main opposition leader, Garry Kasparov, packed off to jail for five days for turning a rally in Moscow into a march.

The Kremlin went to some lengths to make it difficult for election observers to do their jobs, beginning with the small matter of visas that never seemed to get issued; when the observer team from the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe decided to throw in the towel, Mr. Putin blamed the U.S. for the decision. He said Washington wanted to create a false sense of doubt about the election outcome.

The president, who is supposed to step down next year, is running for a seat in parliament. If he wins it - and that's a very small if - it will presumably be the first step toward his retention of power, by one secret scheme or another. Polls show him to be popular. Polls also show that Russians don't expect this election to be legitimate.

There's the conundrum: Russia's most successful politician in - well, in a very long time - is about to steal an election. And not behind the scenes, the way you'd steal a tennis match, but in broad daylight. One of Mr. Putin's favorite themes is the need to restore the world's respect for Russia; this is not the way to go about it.

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