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Putin's grip squeezes life out of election

I'm going to get out on a limb and predict the reelection of the president by a landslide - the president of Russia, that is.

Vladimir Putin has rigged the election next Sunday as he rigged the parliamentary election last December when he disqualified many of the opposition candidates, ensuring himself complete control of the Duma.

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So completely is the Russian president in control that he has already fired his cabinet and named a new one.

Mr. Putin's new prime minister, Mikhail Fradkov, is an unprepossessing former head of the Trade Ministry. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, former ambassador to the United Nations, spearheaded Russia's effort to condemn the American invasion of Iraq. Thirteen of 30 ministries were eliminated altogether as Putin continued to concentrate power in his own hands.

Putin has talked of "managed democracy," but his brand of democracy looks more managed than democratic.

Fellow alumni of the KGB are scattered throughout the government. The media are substantially under the president's control. And the oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who tried to support opposition parties, is in jail.

Masha Gessen, a Russian journalist now a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, has written in the New Republic that what is happening in her country does not resemble "a functioning democracy."

President Bush's look-into-his-soul flirtation with Putin appears to be over, or at least on hold. On Jan. 26, Secretary of State Colin Powell had a long meeting with the Russian president and let it be known that he had criticized restrictions on free elections and the news media and the military campaign in Chechnya. Then Mr. Powell did the unusual thing of writing about it in a leading Russian newspaper, Izvestiya.

"Certain developments in Russian politics and foreign policy in recent months have given us pause," Powell said in his essay.

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That Putin is in the doghouse with his onetime bosom friend, George Bush, is expected to have minimal effect on the Russian voters as they troop to the polls on Sunday.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.