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Kabardino-Balkaria: President Faces New Legal Challenge

Defeated candidates in last year's leadership ballot challenge result in a European court.

Two lawyers defeated in presidential elections in the Russian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria a year ago are seeking to challenge the legality of the ballot at the Europe Court of Human Rights.

Even if the challenge does not succeed, the two men hope to use the case to highlight what they regard as incumbent leader Valery Kokov's autocratic rule in the North Caucasian region.

Kokov's spokesman has dismissed the challengers, Iskhak Kuchukov and Ruslan Murachev, as two losers who could not reconcile themselves to a crushing defeat.

Kokov, who has led Kabardino-Balkaria since 1992, was re-elected on January 13 last year for a third term, in a ballot in which he faced rival candidates for the first time.

According to official results, Kokov was voted back into office with an overwhelming 88 per cent of the vote. His main opponent, Lieutenant-General Mukhamed Batyrov attracted just over seven per cent.

None of the other candidates collected more than 1.5 per cent. They included Kuchukov and Murachev, both lawyers, who accused Kokov of anti-democratic practices. Kuchukov is an ethnic Balkar, the minority community in the republic, which gave him little chance of winning the poll.

Both candidates, however, said they have plenty of evidence that the republic's central electoral commission handling of the campaign contravened their rights and Russian law.

"Firstly, all the ballot papers at the election a year ago were not drawn up in the correct manner," Kuchukov told IWPR. "And those ballot papers, according to the electoral legislation of the Russian Federation, shouldn't be counted. Secondly, the total number of ballot papers produced was almost twice as high as the total number of voters."

Kuchukov and Murachev have also made accusations against Kokov himself. They allege that the president exceeded the maximum allowed sum of 100,000 roubles (about 3,330 US dollars) in his campaign expenditure.

They receive support for their claims from two independent election monitor, the Azerbaijani Eldar Zeinalov and the Armenian Zhanna Krikorov, sent to the republic by the Caucasian Forum, an alliance of non-governmental organisations.

"I thought that the most undemocratic elections took place in Azerbaijan, but when I saw the infringements taking place during the elections in Kabardino-Balkaria, I experienced a sense of pride in my country," Zeinalov said.

Krikorova noted that Kokov did not have a campaign headquarters during the ballot. "That means that the presidential office acted as a headquarters, and so, in an infringement of the current legislation, he used administrative resources for his own purposes," she said.

During the campaign, advertising hoardings appeared in three car parks in Nalchik, declaring "Kokov - Our President". When the opposition protested about this, the local prosecutor's office told them that it was "not campaigning, but a statement of facts". Kokov was still the republic's president, they were told.

Kuchukov and Murachev first mounted a challenge to the election result in the Russian courts a year ago. Since then, their plea has been thrown out by the local court in Nalchik and - December 5 last year - by the Supreme Court in Moscow.

They now say that they will take their case to Strasbourg, arguing that Russia is failing its obligations to them under Article 6 of the Human Rights Convention, the right to a fair trial, and Article 3 of the 1952 Protocol, the right to free elections.

Vladimir Kudayev, the Kabardino-Balkarian president's chief spokesman, dismissed the charge. "It's high time these people calmed down and came to terms with defeat," he said. "They won't change anything, they'll just stir up the people."

Many in the republic credit Kokov with having brought the republic stability, since he was first elected in 1992. In that year Kabardino-Balkaria almost broke up under the pressure of inter-ethnic tensions and political demonstrations.

Both plaintiffs, however, say they hope that their appeal to Strasbourg will compel the Russian government to intervene in Kabardino-Balkaria.

"In my opinion, the European court will acknowledge us as being in the right and, in that event, they will have to recommend to President Putin of the Russian Federation that serious attention be paid to the political system that has developed in Kabardino-Balkaria," said Kuchukov.

"In order to save face, the president of the Russian Federation will have to set a date for a new round of elections in the republic."

Over the past year, the opposition in Kabardino-Balkaria has complained of increased harassment from Kokov's administration.

Valery Khatazhukov, an opposition politician and editor of the Adyge Kheku newspaper, says that his title was refused a further lease on its premises and has not been able to find another space to rent.

Mukhamed Batyrov, who also contested last year's poll, complained that his son was fired from the local police force, after the ballot.

Zaur Borov, a well-known Kabardinian politician and NGO activist, believes the legal challenge in Strasbourg is unlikely to succeed - but welcomes it all the same.

"It's unlikely that the approach to the European court by those two citizens will change anything," Borov said. "Nonetheless, the fact that people are trying to resolve these problems by legal methods is in itself a notable event. It can only be hoped that Kuchukov and Murachayev are laying the foundations for the formation of a law-based state."

Ibragim Gukemukh is a historian and freelance journalist in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria.

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