Don't Take us for Fools

Remote Caucasian village keeps a keen but sceptical eye on Putin election, in an area that has seen few benefits from the new Russia.

Don't Take us for Fools

Remote Caucasian village keeps a keen but sceptical eye on Putin election, in an area that has seen few benefits from the new Russia.

If someone dies in this mountain village, everyone hears about it from the muezzin calling out from the minaret of the mosque. Street noise muffles his cry, so when the first sounds of his prayers are heard, people freeze trying to catch the name of the deceased.

Old women come out of their houses to lament that people are dying so young, and so often these days. Asked why, they sigh in unison and answer that it is because people are unhealthy, the water has become bad, people eat poorly and living standards are low.

You cannot get much more remote in Russia than the Khabez district of Karachai-Cherkessia province, a highland region predominantly populated by Circassians and Abazins, who are predominantly Muslims.

There are just under 32,000 people here in 14 "auls" or mountain villages scattered across a gorge between two ridges, in the valleys of the Bolshoi Zelenchuk and Maly Zelenchuk rivers.

Yet even up here, there is keen interest in the Russia's forthcoming presidential election. The men discuss politics when they gather at weddings and funerals, and whenever they go out in the evening for a breath of fresh air.

The bad news for President Vladimir Putin as he heads for certain re-election on March 14, is that in this part of the Russian Federation he is distrusted, and the economic growth rates that are benefiting the big cities have made no impact here. And this scepticism is despite the fact that a native of Khabez, Nazir Khapsirokov, holds a job in the Kremlin.

Old Ramazan does not smoke or drink, and he reads the Koran. He is respected around here, and his opinion counts. Ramazan says that, whatever those "at the top" do, it is still important to cast a vote in the presidential elections.

"Maybe they will tear my ballot paper up and replace it with another - it doesn't matter," Ramazan said. "The most important thing is to show them I am making my own decisions."

Ramazan says that he disliked Hitler and Stalin because they caused people a lot of grief. Now he dislikes President Putin - although he won't elaborate why.

Thirty-year-old Umar is more talkative. "Yes, Putin is a pretty sight! And he says all the right things. I would have been all for him, if it were not for…."

Umar turns around to check that the older people are listening to him, and continues, "Firstly, we live in poverty. And it's getting worse and worse. It's as if the ones at the top don't need people - if they survive, fine, if they don't - no problem! They tell us so much wonderful stuff on television, but everyone understands that it's all absolutely false. It hurts us to know that they take us for fools who will swallow anything whole.

Umar is also worried about Putin's approach to "the national question" - Moscow's policy on ethnic minorities is always a touchy subject here among the many peoples of the North Caucasus.

"He doesn't know what to do with it, and so he wants to erase all nations and make everyone Russian, and whoever objects will have only himself to blame. You can't do that, you know. This won't be the best thing for the interests of Russia, either," he said.

The old men listen to Umar in silence, and no one raises objections to what he's been saying.

But if not Putin, then who? The question is followed by a long silence, and then Ramazan says what everyone thinks, "There's no choice, they are all the same, but perhaps in four years' time someone will turn up."

Strangely enough, however far away Moscow seems, the authorities in the provincial centre Cherkessk are not any closer. Few people in the aul know that the republic's parliamentary elections will be held at the same time on March 14. Ramazan gives a wave of his hand - whoever they tell us to vote for, we will.

People here are worried about making ends meet in a region of rock-bottom wages and high unemployment.

Last year, grandmother Guasha lost her daughter-in-law. She said with a sigh, "Every day is worse than the last, and people are scared of what tomorrow will bring. They live out their lives in a state of worry, so they get sick and die young."

The old woman is 78. She is the oldest of all her neighbours, but keeps her spirits up, "What can one do? Who shall I complain to - everyone is like me around here. My only joy is that I just got a great-grandson.

Employment is a major issue for the younger people.

"It would be nice if my grandchildren could get a job," said Guasha. "But there is nowhere to work."

The deputy head of the district administration, Mukhamed Shkhayev, explains that while the official figures show unemployment running at just two per cent - and the Russian government budget allows just enough spending to cover this number of people - the real rate is 30 times higher round here.

That explains the seemingly absurd notice pinned up on the door of the village administration building - "No Vacancies on the Unemployment Register!"

But unemployment is not the worst problem in Khabez. Local people are mostly concerned about paying their utility bills. Gas, electricity and water have become expensive luxuries for the aul residents. Everyone blames each other for a mountain of unpaid energy bills.

Shkhayev confirmed that the monthly fee for electricity, gas and water is often five to seven times higher than a family's monthly income. And yet he said the local authorities only received 31,000 roubles a month to subsidise poorer families - a sum that allows less than one US dollar a month to those in need.

Moreover, the voltage in the circuit is so weak that electrical devices often don't work. Locals can forget about using hairdryers or turning up the brightness of their TV sets.

In a small shop, sales assistant Aminat told IWPR that she works seven days a week, without any days off, from seven in the morning till 10 at night. The owners pay her 300 roubles, about 11 dollars, a month. This is a paltry wage by any standard - but in this village it's enough to earn her the envy of others.

Aminat produced a thick notebook where she records the names of people who owe money to the shop. Everyone knows everyone else in the aul, so the shop sell on credit. "Otherwise you won't do any business at all," explained Aminat. "People have no money. Soon they'll receive their child [benefits] and pay off their debts, and then they'll start borrowing again until the next month. That's how we live."

The muezzin's cry begins to sound over Khabez. The old men hurry off - this time the faithful are being summoned to Friday prayers.

Fatima Tlisova is a freelance journalist based in Cherkessk, Karachai-Cherkessia.

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