The August 29 special election to fill the vacant presidency of Chechnya’s pro-Moscow administration produced no surprises. Despite the authorities’ efforts to control the flow of information, independent journalists managed to learn enough to make it clear that a high turnout would have been reported even Grozny had been deserted—which it largely was.
Predictably, election officials of the pro-Moscow administration said that turnout had reached almost 80 percent. But according to a Reuters report by Oliver Bullough, “Grozny, where a green mat of weeds has grown over the ruins of buildings bombed years ago, was deserted on Sunday. At one polling station no one turned up until journalists appeared — whereupon a busload of voters arrived to cast their ballots.”
Similarly, Agence France-Presse reported on August 29 that “the day before the poll, gone was the stream of cars that usually pick their way around the pot-holed roads in Grozny and the normally-bustling streets of the bombed-out city were eerily empty.”
Vladlen Maksimov and Said Bitsoev wrote in Novye izvestia on August 30 that the special election “reminded one of a well-planned military operation.” They noted that nearly all the pro-Moscow administration’s leading figures cast their own ballots not in Grozny or in their hometowns, but in the village of Tsentoroi—the stronghold of the Kadyrov clan. “On the one hand, it was thus confirmed that the current election constitutes a direct continuation of the work of the deceased president. On the other, it’s simply more peaceful there than in Grozny.”
According to Maksimov and Bitsoev, “Vice-premier Ramzan Kadyrov and Chechen State Council Chairman Taus Dzhabrailov spent the whole day calling on their fellow citizens via the local television channel to come out and vote. But in spite of their appeals, Grozny looked like a dying city on Sunday. All the stores and other public establishments were closed; even the open-air markets were empty. Most of the residents were trying not to go outside their homes—or had even already left Grozny altogether in fear of provocations and terrorist attacks.”
Nevertheless, Abdul-Kerim Arsakhanov, head of the Chechen pro-Moscow administration’s election commission, told journalists at 4 am on Monday, August 30, that Alu Alkhanov had won about 74 percent of the 384,000 votes counted by then. According to the Interfax news agency on Monday afternoon, Arsakhanov said that the election-day turnout had come to about 85 percent of eligible voters. Movsur Khamidov was said to have come in second to Alkhanov, with about 6 percent of the vote.
The final, official tally as announced by Arsakhanov at an August 30 press conference: a turnout of 85 percent, with 74 percent of the vote going to Alkhanov and 9 percent to runner-up Khamidov.
Andrei Smirnov observed in an August 30 article for the Grani.ru website that “for insurance, as always, the federals were brought in. At first it was announced that 14,000 troops would take part in the election, then that figure was increased to 25,000.”
With security extremely tight, Election Day was relatively peaceful. But one rebel guerrilla tried unsuccessfully to enter a polling station with a bomb; apparently he then triggered the explosive while trying to run away. According to Reuters the guerrilla was killed, but nobody else was harmed.
According to the Caucasian Knot information service, sources in Grozny observed that in one polling station the ballot boxes were already full at 8:15 am on Election Day—15 minutes after the polls had opened.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported on August 30 on its website that “RFE/RL correspondents reported that pre-registration of voters was loosely observed, with late-comers being added to the voter lists with no difficulties on election day.”
New York Times correspondent C.J. Chivers wrote on election day from Chechnya, where he was part of a group of visiting journalists closely escorted by the authorities, that “much of what journalists did see — besides neighborhood after neighborhood without a civilian in sight — felt contrived. In the village of Alpatovo, a small crowd waited at the otherwise empty polling place, and as journalists arrived they moved en masse to vote. At least one voter handed his ballot to another man, who put a check mark on the Alkhanov blank. In Grozny, journalists visited the Oktyabrsky district, where the election secretary said more than half of the 1,956 registered voters had cast ballots, a rate that would have meant 180 an hour at that time. But fewer than 10 voters turned up in the 40 minutes journalists waited, and voting lists, required to be signed by each person who received a ballot, were mostly blank — suggesting few people had in fact voted.”
The Itar-Tass news agency and other state-controlled media reported on August 30 that vaguely-described “international observers” had stated that they had not found any serious violations in the election. What was not mentioned was that, as other recent elections in Chechnya, all of these observers were from entities such as the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Arab League or the Organization of the Islamic Conference—groups with no credible record as truly independent election monitors. In most of these groups’ home countries, free elections are still unusual.
Akhmed Zakaev, diplomatic representative in Western Europe of the underground Maskhadov government, said in a statement released on August 29 that “the conducting of elections under conditions of military operations, strict censorship and systematic terror against peaceful civilians contradicts all norms of law, justice and common sense. To speak seriously of ‘elections’ in today’s Chechnya would be as absurd as it would be to speak of such elections in the Warsaw Ghetto or in Stalin’s Gulag.”