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

Putin Landslide Raises Eyebrows

Sharp differences between official figures and reported turnout in the presidential election in the North Caucasus.
By Laura Magomedova

Russia’s Central Election Commission says newly re-elected president Vladimir Putin received a massive show of support from the North Caucasus in the March 14 election, but this contrasts sharply with reports from polling stations throughout the region that suggest a relatively low turnout.


Official results say Putin won his biggest successes in the region, polling more than 96 per cent of votes cast in Kabardino-Balkaria, more than 92 per cent in Ingushetia, 91 per cent support in North Ossetia, and 94 per cent both in war-ravaged Chechnya and in Dagestan. These five republics are among the top ten Russian regions that voted for Putin and had the highest recorded turnout in Russia, with all of them including Chechnya, reporting voter participation at around 90 per cent.


However observers and opposition activists – even while conceding Putin’s victory – say these figures reflect widespread falsification of the vote. Natalya Mikhailenko, principal campaign manager for the defeated Communist candidate Nikolai Kharitonov in North Ossetia, told IWPR, “People were forced to vote in their workplaces, and we even had a complaint that in a cancer hospital patients’ passports were collected from them the day before election day. Despite all the tricks of the authorities, we estimate that in North Ossetia no more than 15 per cent of the population voted, so basically there was no election.”


Valery Khatazhukov, director of the Centre for Defence of the Rights of the Population in Nalchik, said that “in Kabardino-Balkaria we estimate that at best half of the population voted”.


In Chechnya some rank-and-file members of local electoral commissions admitted that turnout had been very low. “Although the polling station had between 1,500 and 2,000 registered voters, the actual turnout was no more than 15 or 20 per cent,” said Fatima Kovrayeva, a member of the local electoral commission of the Oktyabrsky district of Grozny.


“The final figures were sent to us from the Central Electoral Commission, and then we distributed them between the local commissions here,” Kovrayeva said. “Members of the electoral commission personally filled out the ballots on Saturday and then put them into the ballot boxes when the observers were, let’s say, out for lunch. Anyway, the observers didn’t protest too much – they are no strangers here themselves.”


Another electoral official, Luisa Isayeva, said, “This was not explicitly stated, but everyone knew that if the turnout was high then the commission members would receive bonuses.” Many of those who did turn out to vote were government employees and policemen.


Most Chechens, when asked about the elections, responded with weary indifference or hostility. “We don’t consider Chechnya to be part of Russia and we don’t want to vote for its president,” said a taxi driver in Grozny, Ruslan Jabrailov.


“In short, all Chechens turned out to be masochists - the harder they hit us, the more we love Putin,” human rights activist Usam Baisaev commented on the official results.


Across the border in Dagestan, the picture was very different. Here the main observation was how quiet this election was, compared to previous violent polls in this region.


The tone was set by Dagestani leader Magomedali Magomedov in an interview given shortly after polling stations closed, in which he openly expressed the hope that Putin would be re-elected for a second term. “I hope that the political course laid out by Vladimir Putin is continued,” said Magomedov. “He is an independent president, who governs the country skilfully and successfully, and if the Dagestani nation supports him, it will be to its benefit.”


Unlike in Chechnya, there is also genuine ground-level support for Putin in Dagestan – although some observers cast doubt on the reported 94 per cent turnout figure.


Natalia Kosenko, a 54-year-old history teacher from Makhachkala who voted for Putin, gave three reasons, “Firstly, he appeals to me as a person. Secondly, in the four years that Putin has been in power it has become relatively peaceful here, in Dagestan. You see, they tried to drag us into an internethnic war in 1999, but we received good support from the Russian government. Finally, as a teacher, I can say that I am happy about the policy of paying salaries, benefits, long-service bonuses and pensions on time. For instance, pension rates are adjusted regularly, every six months.”


Uma Abdullayeva, a 32-year-old manager at a private travel agency, put the case against Putin, saying that she had supported defeated liberal candidate Irina Khakamada.


“I wanted to remind Putin about democracy,” said Abdullayeva. “You can’t say that Russian people are not ready for democratic freedoms. You can’t, after all, torture people in the sixth police department, as is the common practice here in Dagestan.”


In North Ossetia, 250 km to the west, an election is always a bit of a celebration in the village of Chermen. Headmistress Zaya Alagova, chair of one election commission in the village noted with pleasure that this time, with fewer local interests at stake, the election had been very peaceful.


Indeed, the only observers present at the polling station were two Communists sitting peacefully on a bench. During the four hours IWPR spent at the polling station, from noon till 4 PM., only a few dozen voters out of over 2,000 who were registered turned up to vote.


Chermen is a village in the Prigorodny region of North Ossetia, where a conflict between Ossetians and Ingushetians broke out in 1992. The village is still divided into three sectors, two of which are inhabited by Ingush and one by Ossetians. This was the second election since 1992 where both groups voted at the same polling station.


Batyr Nakastakhoyev, a farmer in Chermen who lives in the Ingush part of the village, said he had voted for Putin.


“My life is very difficult right now. I am an honest man, but there is no work, and I can’t cheat, so I really hope that Putin will improve the situation during this term,” he told IWPR. “Of course, it is wrong that innocent people are dying. Politics is not my strongest point, but the war in Chechnya must, of course, be ended - although even if I have an opinion, it doesn’t mean anything. During the time Putin has been in power, relations [between Ossetians and Ingush] have improved in our village. There were no such relations before him.”


Two female pensioners who asked to remain unnamed said. “We voted for Kharitonov. Putin is, generally, a good president, too. But he is still linked to the Family [the circle of former president Boris Yeltsin]. Even if he wanted to do anything they wouldn’t let him.” The official results gave Kharitonov just six per cent of the vote in North Ossetia.


Not everyone wanted to talk so candidly. War veteran Murat first agreed to talk to IWPR, but became confused when asked whom he had voted for – he seemed to be afraid, and first named Putin, then communist Kharitonov, then Putin again and finally said he was in a hurry to get home.


Laura Magomedova is a reporter for Novoe Delo newspaper in Makhachkala, Dagestan. Timur Aliyev is IWPR’s Chechnya coordinator. Valery Dzutsev is IWPR’s Regional Coordinator for North Caucasus, based in North Ossetia.


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