Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Chechen Election Goes Just About to Plan

There was almost no violence in Chechnya on polling day - but not many voters either.
By Timur Aliev

On polling day in Grozny, an elderly woman left the booth where she had just filled in her ballot. She dropped it into the box and loudly addressed members of the electoral commission across the room, "Good luck to him in everything! May all his plans be fulfilled! I wish him victory in the first round!"


"Who is he?" a watching local photographer could not contain himself.


"Why, Kadyrov!" said the surprised woman.


The voter's reaction was understandable. Long before October 5, no one had any illusions about the result of Chechnya's presidential election. The more important questions were of a different kind. Would polling day be free from rebel attacks? And would a high turnout give Kadyrov legitimacy? In the event, the day passed off peacefully but observers believe the Chechen leader failed to persuade the electorate to vote in the numbers he wished.


Though the result of the contest was a foregone conclusion, no one took any chances about Kadyrov's victory. An enormous team mobilised behind him, starting with Russian president Vladimir Putin and ending with vast numbers of campaigners, who had their candidate's name printed on T-shirts.


By polling day, Kadyrov simply had no competitors left. His last serious opponent Malik Saidullayev was removed from the race on September 12 and that date may as well have been called victory day for Kadyrov.


"The elections were in Chechnya, but the real battlefield was the Kremlin," commented Dmitry Oreshkin, head of Moscow Mercator group and election expert, in a telephone interview. "It's there that the struggle between different groups and clans takes place, with each of them supporting their own candidates. When this struggle was over in the Kremlin, the outcome of the elections was predetermined."


"Chechnya is a region where the Kremlin cannot afford to make mistakes," said political analyst and former Russian presidential adviser Vyacheslav Nikonov.


"The entire Russian policy in Chechnya was based on Kadyrov and it's going to be based on him in the future," he told IWPR by telephone from Moscow. "It would be inopportune to change the policy given the situation."


None of the other seven candidates posed any serious competition. Some had heard of Abdullah Bugayev, a former deputy prime minister in a pro-Moscow government in Grozny, and that was it.


The only serious threat to Kadyrov was that rebel violence would disrupt polling day. Supporters of Aslan Maskhadov, the pro-independence leader elected president of Chechnya in 1997, boycotted the election.


"I went out of the city the day of the polls," said Luiza Bakanayeva who works on the staff of Grozny city administration. "Not that I was afraid - the situation seemed calm - but a bit apprehensive still."


Despite the unusually warm weather, many stayed at home on polling day, probably anticipating trouble. At the normally crowded central market, there were more sellers than buyers.


Fish seller Sapiet Ulubayeva said she did not go to the polls because she thought she would earn some extra money in the absence of competitors. "But it didn't work out - there were no customers either," she said.


However, fears of violence proved unfounded. Chechnya's interior ministry reported several incidents. They said that 10,000 Chechen policemen and 3,000 Russian soldiers were supposed to keep law and order in the streets of Chechen cities and villages. But there was no obvious military presence in the city except at the polling stations. Voters had to pass through metal detectors.


Three kinds of voters boosted the turnout figures: pensioners, government employees and rural residents.


"We want things in our republic to change for the better; we want an end of suffering for our poor people," said 83-year-old Magomed Ibragimov, as he cast his vote. "I feel that Akhmad [Kadyrov] tries to improve our lives. Maybe his subordinates don't give him the full picture."


In the villages, people felt pressure to go out and vote and get noticed by their neighbours. "It's impossible to stay at home unnoticed," said Adlan Magomadov from Urus-Martan.


Some electoral officials admitted that voters had felt pressure to take part in the election. "People who came to vote at our station were afraid they might have trouble at work if they don't vote for Kadyrov," said Fatima Kovrayeva, chair of the commission in the 382nd electoral district in Grozny.


"Nobody intimidated them directly, but the general atmosphere in the republic was such that the choice was between voting for Kadyrov or voting for Kadyrov."


By early afternoon on polling day, the chairman of Chechnya's electoral commission declared that there had already been a 50 per cent turnout and the poll was valid. Later on, it was announced that turnout had been 82 per cent and 87 per cent of those who had voted had supported Kadyrov.


Independent observers were sceptical. Tatyana Lokshina, executive director of the Moscow Helsinki Group, described arriving at an empty polling station in the middle of the day and being told that 29 per cent of voters had already cast their ballots.


Lokshina told a press conference, "To our question 'How can that be?' we got the answer, 'What are you saying? You just came at the wrong time. If only you had come an hour ago! We were simply rushed off our feet and now everyone has gone. People have work, their orchards to tend to. In three hours' time there will be another surge of people. You just picked the wrong time.'


"We were in one village at 10.30, another at 11.30 and we went round like that until the evening. And every time turned out to be 'wrong.' Everywhere, voters had just left and new ones had not arrived yet."


Another observer was more generous, but still said the official turnout was vastly exaggerated. "I visited many polling stations," said independent observer, St. Petersburg human rights activist Antuan Arakelian. "The overall turnout was probably between 35 and 50 per cent, but definitely not 80."


"The 1997 elections were much more legitimate than these ones," commented Magomed Musayev, who served as deputy military chief of the Oktyabrskoe district of Grozny in 1996-7 and now works as a taxi driver. "Those were recognised across the world and, unlike these ones, there were international observers at them. But no one in Russia now remembers those elections. Maybe it will be the same with these one if the Kremlin wants it that way."


In Grozny, the day after the elections, nobody was talking about them anymore. People went back to work, not expecting any great things from Akhmad Kadyrov's "legitimisation." "I don't anticipate any real changes from his becoming president. He was elected precisely so that things would stay as they are now," said Russian language teacher Sveta Isayeva.


"And were they really elections?" she said. "The real elections took place long ago. Yesterday was just October 5."


Timur Aliev is editor of the newspaper Chechenskoe Obshchestvo in Grozny and writes for IWPR from Chechnya.