One of President Vladimir Putin’s chief declared aims is to establish a “dictatorship of the law.” He and his team have used this goal to justify tough legal measures against various tycoons and regional barons, who, they charge, had gotten used to dictating to the state and flouting the laws of the land. To this end, the Kremlin has armed itself with a powerful legal arsenal: Just recently, for example, Russia’s Constitutional Court upheld a Kremlin-sponsored law giving the head of state the right to remove governors and other regional leaders who have committed serious crimes.
Against this backdrop, it was rather ironic that the Kremlin recently played, albeit indirectly, the role of illegal usurper in a regional election. On April 28, Murat Zyazikov, the Kremlin-backed candidate in Ingushetia’s presidential contest, scored a comfortable victory in the republic’s runoff election. He defeated Alikhan Amirkhanov, the candidate backed by Ruslan Aushev, the former Ingushetian president and a leading critic of Kremlin policy in the North Caucasus, 53 percent to 43 percent.
Several things were strange about the run-off’s outcome.
First, prior to the election, few residents of the republic (which neighbors Chechnya) had heard of Zyazikov, who is an FSB general. Those who had heard of him were less than impressed, given that he is also a deputy to Viktor Kazantsev, President Vladimir Putin’s representative in the Southern federal district and the former commander of the Russian military in Chechnya, who is widely disliked in Ingushetia for his hard line vis-a-vis the conflict next door.
Second, in the first round of voting, which took place on April 7, Amirkhanov won 32 percent of the vote, with Zyazikov receiving only 19 percent.
What accounted for this remarkable turnaround? Kommersant’s coverage of the April 28 runoff described voters forced to wait in line for hours at polling stations and quoted a tearful woman describing how she was ejected from a polling station by a Kalashnikov-wielding policeman after she was spotted writing down the names of people who had “dropped bundles of ballots into the voting urns.” Nezavisimaya Gazeta, meanwhile, reported that on the day of the runoff, the FSB and other law-enforcement organs in the republic “placed all polling stations, without exception, including those in remote mountain villages, under tight control.” Judging from the Kommersant descriptions, it is pretty clear what the goal of that “tight control” was. Indeed, even the reliably pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia headlined its article on the Ingushetian run-off, “Ingushetia’s president elected by Russia’s president.”
In some places, it seems, the phrase “dictatorship of the law” gets truncated.
This issue of Russia’s Week was written by Jonas Burnstein.