Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 30

Will the Kremlin use Chechnya’s October 5 presidential election to rid itself of the troublesome Akhmad Kadyrov? The August holiday period, often a time for behind the scenes political maneuvering in Moscow, has seen the anti-Kadyrov forces within the Putin administration gaining confidence. Several prominent anti-Kadyrov Chechens have, as a result, taken heart that one of them may suddenly have a serious chance to win the Chechen presidency for himself. Ruslan Khasbulatov’s surprise decision this month to run for the post seems to have been connected with these developments.

The anti-Kadyrov forces in Moscow, which in recent months have become increasingly active in promoting Russian press articles critical of the Chechen strongman, are concentrated in the security agencies–the military, the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Interior Ministry. Broadly speaking, this is the same faction that wants to cut back the power of another major element in the coalition that put President Vladimir Putin into the Kremlin–the “oligarchs” who benefited from the corrupt privatization deals of the Yeltsin years. The oligarchs have been closer to Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and to Kremlin Chief of Staff Aleksandr Voloshin, himself a holdover from the Yeltsin administration. This summer has seen tensions mount between these two major factions, surfacing most dramatically in a surprise offensive by state prosecutors against Yukos, Russia’s biggest oil producer. Last week several Russian television channels reported rumors that Putin was about to fire Kasyanov and Voloshin. This would be a decisive victory for the faction based in the security agencies.

Chechnya is one of the issues dividing the two factions, though it is not as important to either as are such economic questions as reversing the privatizations of the 1990s. Voloshin has been one of the principal architects of “Chechenization,” which for some time has been the core of Putin’s strategy. And the key element of Chechenization, of course, has been Kadyrov. With Putin’s backing he has steadily consolidated his personal power in Chechnya, despite the poor relations that he has with the Russian military and other security agencies. If Kadyrov can continue to count on the kind of solid support from Putin that he has enjoyed for most of the last year, he will “win” the October election in a landslide of stolen votes. But if Voloshin and his allies should lose the current power struggle in Moscow, Kadyrov could suddenly find himself facing a hostile Kremlin. The election might then turn from a device for “legitimizing” Kadyrov into one employed to get rid of him.

This seems to be the outcome sought by Kadyrov’s main rival candidates. Malik Saidullaev has made it clear that he would like to force the election into a second round, at which point all the anti-Kadyrov candidates would agree to support the one who gets the most votes in the first round. (A second round is required if no one candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round.) Khasbulatov has been less specific, but he is most likely pursuing a similar scenario–albeit one in which he, rather than Saidullaev, ends up the victor.

In an August 7 telephone interview with Chechnya Weekly, Khasbulatov said that he had not received any concrete guarantee from the Kremlin that the election would be conducted honestly, but that he was prepared to run even without such a guarantee. On the very next day he told Interfax that had made a “firm decision” to announce his candidacy.

A small but tantalizing straw in the wind appeared on August 12, when the pro-Kremlin news agency Interfax reported that “analysts in Chechnya”–it did not name these “analysts”–were predicting that it would take two rounds to produce a winner. What this suggests is that Moscow is using the media to lay the groundwork for expectations involving something other than a Kadyrov landslide. After all, it would be easy for Moscow’s experts at vote-rigging to deliver an overwhelming first round victory for Kadyrov, just as they delivered an overwhelming victory for a “Yes” vote in the March constitutional referendum (see Chechnya Weekly, April 3). If there really were a firm alliance between Putin and Kadyrov–as seemed to be the case until recently–the election authorities could do for the latter what they did for the former in the election for the presidency of the Russian Federation three years ago. In that earlier vote they delivered an absolute majority to Putin in the first round and thus eliminated the need for a second round.

Saidullaev, a pillar of the Chechen community in Moscow who announced his candidacy weeks ago, has taken the most visible role in predicting and planning for a two round knockout of Kadyrov. He told a Moscow news conference last week that other leading candidates or potential candidates, such as Ruslan Khasbulatov and Said-Selim Peshkhoev, had agreed with him “that we will support any leading candidate who will gain the greatest number of votes–except Kadyrov.” As was suggested above, in accordance with that strategy all the candidates will support whichever one of them gets the most votes in the first round, presenting a united front against Kadyrov in the second round.

Saidullaev has also called on the other candidates to join him in resisting Kadyrov’s efforts to rig the vote counting. He said that he and others would be prepared to withdraw their candidacies as a sign of protest if it is not clear by the end of September that the elections will be legitimate. Saidullaev claimed that Khasbulatov and Husein Dzhabrailov had already agreed to this step; but Interfax reported on August 8 that Khasbulatov had declined to comment on whether he and any other candidate were coordinating their activities. In any case, the website Gzt.ru cast doubt on the effectiveness of such a tactic, suggesting in an August 8 commentary that it would only help secure a Kadyrov victory. It pointed out that, according to Saidullaev himself, seven of the thirteen candidates who had announced by August 8 were actually allies of Kadyrov. This assessment, the website said, “may not be far from the truth–one of these, the poet Nikolai Paizullaev, works in the press office of Chechnya’s acting president–but this will not prevent them from conducting their election campaigns and winning a few votes, which will prevent observers from calling this an election with only one candidate.”

It thus seems clear that Saidullaev’s best chance of winning, like that of the other candidates, is to get Moscow’s vote counters on his side. If Voloshin and his allies lose the current power struggle to the FSB and the other security agencies, this may actually happen.

Khusein Isaev, head of Chechnya’s State Council, told the news agency Itar-Tass on August 12 that 600,000 voters are registered. That figure is clearly inflated, just as the registration figures used in the March referendum were inflated. If the 600,000 figure was accurate, it would mean that hundreds of thousands of people have voluntarily chosen to move into a war zone (see Chechnya Weekly, February 20). In fact, the Kadyrov administration’s minister of the press and mass media, Bislan Gantemirov, let slip in a recent interview with the website Strana.ru that one-fourth of Chechens still live outside the republic. The large number of “dead souls” in the vote tally will therefore give the authorities ample opportunity for falsification.

It would seem from polling data that Kadyrov has almost no chance of winning an honest election. According to a recent poll of Chechens by the Obshchestvennoe mnenie (“Public Opinion”) fund, his popularity ranking is only 14.4 percent. That is less than the figures for Saidullaev, Khasbulatov and Aslambek Aslakhanov, Chechnya’s deputy in the federal Duma. Polling data must be treated with considerable skepticism in Chechnya, where people have good reason to fear telling the truth about their political opinions–but precisely for that reason one would expect more favorable results for the incumbent.

The deadline for filing a presidential candidacy is August 20, and that for formally completing the registration process is August 22. But Ela Vakhtov of Chechnya’s election commission told the Itar-Tass agency on August 12 that unless a would-be candidate begins the process before August 15 it will in practice be impossible to complete all the necessary steps. These include opening a special bank account five days before presenting registration documents.

On August 12 the number of announced candidates reached fourteen when Shamil Buraev threw his hat into the ring. Buraev is the former head of western Chechnya’s Achkhoi-Martan district; he was dismissed from that post by Kadyrov earlier this summer (see Chechnya Weekly, August 7). Buraev chose not to go into open opposition against Kadyrov after his dismissal. Perhaps he was already calculating that this choice would help his chances as a candidate, or perhaps he has made a secret pact with Kadyrov as some other candidates are said to have done.

Lyudmila Alekseeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, told an August 12 press conference that her organization intends to send observers to monitor the election in Chechnya even though it considers the vote to be illegal. She said that the true number of federal troops in Chechnya is twice the official figure of 70,000, and suggested that these votes should be counted separately from those of long-term residents of the republic so that “people can see who really elected their president–they themselves or soldiers who are going to leave and forget about Chechnya.”