Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 6 Issue: 41

The official parliamentary election campaign started in Chechnya on October 29. On November 27, 18 deputies of the Council of the Republic and 40 deputies of the People’s Assembly will be elected.

These elections are important for the Russian authorities. The Kremlin wants to demonstrate to the world community that the insurgency in the republic is defeated and to justify once again its political course in the region. It is even more important now against the backdrop of war spreading across the Caucasus. In his recent interview with Dutch journalists, President Vladimir Putin attributed the increasing violence in the North Caucasus to the success of his Chechen policy. “In Chechnya itself, as one can see, the terrorists have less and less opportunities to act effectively,” quoted Putin as saying on November 2. The rebels, he said, are trying “to transfer their activity to other regions in the North Caucasus.” The upcoming elections in Chechnya are designed to confirm Putin’s claims about normalization in the republic.

The Kremlin started careful preparations for the elections early this fall. On September 13, Vladislav Surkov, deputy head of the Russian presidential administration, made a semi-secret journey to Grozny (the trip was announced to have taken place only when it was over). He took with him leaders of major Russian parties represented in the Russian parliament—United Russia, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, Rodina (Motherland), and the Communist Party. Leaders of the Russian right-wing parties, the Union of the Right Forces and Yabloko, were also in the group. Surkov and the party leaders met with the heads of the pro-Russian administration in Chechnya—Ramzan Kadyrov, Alu Alkhanov, and Sergei Abramov—to discuss the election issues. As NTV reported on September 13, Surkov, sitting in a tiny room full of armed bodyguards in the main building of the heavy-guarded government headquarters in the Chechen capital, wished all the parties “good luck” and called upon the local authorities to assist the parties in their election campaigns. As it usually happens, Ramzan Kadyrov voiced the main idea of the Kremlin during the meeting: “We should organize the election so that everybody will recognize it to be most democratic,” the September 14 edition of Gazeta quoted him as saying. That is why the Russian authorities want the Russian opposition parties to be present in the republic.

The Kremlin took another step in its Chechen election plan after the meeting. In order to stifle any talk about possible negotiations between the Russian authorities and insurgents, it was announced that former separatists who now recognize Chechnya as a part of Russia could take part in the elections. Candidates for this role were easily found. On September 22, Ramzan Kadyrov declared that Magomed Khambiev, the Minister of Defense in Aslan Maskhadov’s government who had surrendered to the Russian side, would take part in the elections as a candidate of the Union of the Right Forces. Ibragim Khultigov, the former separatist security minister who had been fired by Maskhadov for “cowardice,” became an “independent candidate.”

The reputation of both these candidates among most of the locals in Chechnya is very low, but the authorities believe that these figures will prove to the West that Russia is making every effort to involve rebels in the political process. Yet it is clear to any close observer of the situation in Chechnya that neither Khambiev nor Khultigov can be called independent candidates. The current status of Khambiev can be described as a personal prisoner of Kadyrov (it was no accident that Kadyrov, not Khambiev himself, announced his participation in the election). As for Khultigov, he is just a soldier in Ramzan Kadyrov’s army, the commander of a squad based in the village of Mekheti.

Looking at other candidates, one cannot find any former separatists, independent political figures or famous personalities. As Kavkazky Uzel reported on October 24, there are 126 acting Chechen officials, 13 policemen, and 5 Russian army officers among the candidates. Among the 357 candidates for parliamentary seats, 213—more than half—work for the government. The rest are relatives of officials—like Rosa Isaeva, the widow of Khusein Isaev, the assassinated chairman of Chechnya’s State Council—or people linked to the authorities like Umar Avdorkhanov, who was a leader of the pro-Russian opposition in Chechnya in the mid-1990s. All those who might criticize Russian policy in the republic and are rivals of the local government have been struck off the list of candidates. Beslan Gantamirov, a Chechen leader loyal to Moscow but a rival of Ramzan Kadyrov, disappeared from the list of Rodina party candidates and was replaced by a nondescript person.

Having purged the candidates, the Kremlin took steps to neutralize the activity of the parties. The number of the parties was limited to eight. They were told not to mention hot-button issues like the lawlessness of Chechnya’s security services, illegal detentions, kidnappings, killings or massive official corruption. The parties’ programs and slogans took on the same tenor and any difference between them could be found only with the aid of a microscope. For example, Zinaida Magomadova, the chairperson of the Chechen branch of the Union of the Right Forces party, told on September 29 that the party’s program consisted of such words as peace, creativity, labor, learning, and other words that are good but useless in the context of today’s Chechnya.

Despite its desperate attempts, the Kremlin failed to sell the idea that Chechnya’s parliamentary election will be free and fair. According to a survey conducted by SK-Strategiya, an independent Chechen analytical center, only 8 percent of Chechens believe that the elections will be fair while 68 percent are skeptical about it. Asked who will determine the result of the elections, only 2 percent of the respondents said the Chechen people, while 72 percent said they believe it will be Ramzan Kadyrov, 13 percent said it will be the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, and nine percent said Vladimir Putin, the Regnum news agency reported on November 1.

The international organizations are no less skeptical than the Chechens. After the rebel raid on Nalchik on October 13, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), whose delegation was in Moscow at the time, declared that “after Nalchik the organization became even more determined in its decision not to send monitors to the elections in Chechnya.” This was a real blow for Vladimir Putin. The decision of the Council of Europe to send an unofficial group to monitor the situation in Chechnya on the eve of the election cannot be compared with the OSCE’s rejection.

The Kremlin, however, still has a chance to get some benefits from the election. No matter how many Chechen voters turn out on November 27 or how many electoral districts that are open, the authorities will call the elections “another step towards the normalization.” Nevertheless, this will be possible only if the military prevents large-scale rebel attacks.

Russian troops have been conducting their “election campaign” since the end of the summer by endlessly bombing and shelling Chechnya’s mountains, forests and all other places where rebels can hide or concentrate for attacks on Grozny or other Chechen towns. The residents of Novy Atagy, a village located on the route from the mountains to Grozny, say that there has not been such serious bombardment of their area since the end of full-scale clashes between federal forces and rebels in the year of 2000. After the Nalchik attack, the federal forces, who had been shelling daily the forest near the village of Samashki, the largest forest in the Chechen valley, began bombing it from the air (see Council of Chechen Non-governmental Organizations, press-release no. 449, October 17). Human rights organizations also report that the number of the mopping-up operations and arrests seriously increased following the start of the official election campaign.

The election campaign in which guns and bombs play the main role is now at its peak. It is no wonder that many Chechens are trying to leave the region until this latest calamity, called “parliamentarian elections,” is over.