Kabardino-Balkaria: Businessman Takes a Stand

In a rare display of defiance, a popular local figure is taking his case against the Kabardino-Balkar authorities to Russia’s supreme court.

Kabardino-Balkaria: Businessman Takes a Stand

In a rare display of defiance, a popular local figure is taking his case against the Kabardino-Balkar authorities to Russia’s supreme court.

Friday, 18 November, 2005

A prominent businessman in Kabardino-Balkaria is going before Moscow’s top courts to highlight what he says are election abuses in the notoriously authoritarian North Caucasian autonomous republic.

Adalbi Shkhagoshev – already regarded by many as local hero for past acts of bravery and charity – filed a claim last week with Russia’s supreme court alleging that he was cheated out of victory in a 2003 parliamentary vote because of fraud.

He has also filed an appeal to the separate constitutional court, asking judges to rule on the legality of three federal electoral laws.

The case will be a test of Moscow’s loyalty towards what is widely regarded as one of Russia’s toughest regional administrations. Local president Valery Kokov has run the republic with an iron grip for the past 15 years.

Shkhagoshev has a good reputation in Kabardino-Balkaria, where his business activities have created hundreds of jobs. He has set up a soup kitchen for the poor and been named an “Honorary Citizen” of Nalchik, the regional capital.

In 1992, when he was still a student, he lost both hands whilst intervening in a grenade attack during campus riots. His lifesaving act earned him a government award for bravery.

After Shkhagoshev ran as an independent candidate in the 2003 parliamentary ballot, many observers judged that he had won by a wide margin. But the official results showed him losing out to Zaurbi Nakhushev, a former Communist-era functionary and member of the pro-government United Russia party.

Shkhagoshev and his supporters say they have evidence of flagrant vote-rigging.

“The number of violations during the parliamentary elections in that constituency… was exceptional,” Alexander Ivanchenko, doctor of law and director of the Independent Elections Institute in Moscow, told IWPR by telephone. “The whole thing was entirely against the law. Our analysts believe there are grounds to annul the election results in the constituency.”

Independent lawyer Iskhak Kuchukov explained that staffing within the republic’s electoral system help ensure the success of the “right” candidates. “The lists of district electoral commission officials in the whole republic have remained unchanged for many years,” he said. “[These] are trusted people, whose main goal is to deliver the required result.”

Leonid Nikitinsky, an analyst with the independent Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta, believes the way the ballot was handled is a sign of worse electoral fraud to come. “It is obvious to me that the Kabardino-Balkarian elections were a rehearsal,” he said. “This is how they are going to cheat us next time around.”

But so far every judicial body in Kabardino-Balkaria – from the lowest-level district court to the republic’s supreme court – has thrown Shkhagoshev’s case out, in a total of 14 separate rulings.

The businessman says the republic’s authorities, judiciary and media have formed a united front against him. “Once the regional authorities named their favourites, we found ourselves in an information blackout,” he told IWPR. “For no amount of money could we get any publicity for our court case.”

Whether by coincidence or not, the winning candidate Nakhushev has launched a massive campaign in Kabardino-Balkaria just as Shkhagoshev’s case has gone to court, providing low income families with extra cash, meeting voters and promising housing, jobs and better living standards for all.

Representatives of each of the Kabardino-Balkaria courts where Shkhagoshev pleaded his case all refused to speak with IWPR, as did the head of the election commission, Boris Zumakulov and Zaurbi Nakhushev.

Acts of defiance against the Kabardino-Balkaria authorities are rare. Two years ago, independent journalist and human rights monitor Valery Khatazhukov filed a complaint against the republic’s justice department over its refusal to allow him to register a human rights centre.

The Russian justice ministry recently decided in favour of Khatazhukov, but only after the intervention of prominent Moscow human rights advocate Lev Ponomarev.

Shkhagoshev says he is not optimistic about the chances of success for his own case, because of its politically sensitive nature. Many in Kabardino-Balkaria believe Moscow supports Kabardino-Balkaria’s regional president Kokov, because of the support he in turn gives to Kremlin-backed candidates during Russian presidential and parliamentary elections.

But Shkhagoshev told IWPR that if things do not go his way in Moscow, he is already preparing to take his case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

“I have every reason to believe I will win in Europe,” he said.

Fatima Tlisova is a Novaya Gazeta reporter and regular IWPR contributor based in Nalchik.

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