Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 9

The administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin and its allies in Grozny are clearly counting on a big win in Saturday’s (March 22) referendum. Putin aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky said that “the appearance of voters in Chechnya is traditionally high,” and the Russian media have been circulating forecasts that at least two-thirds of the republic’s population will cast votes.

But political analyst Aleksei Makarkin told the Moscow Times that Chechnya’s voters are not really convinced. “Unfortunately, everything indicates that the Zavgaev election scenario will be repeated,” he said. The 1996 election that ended with the Russians declaring Doku Zavgaev as the winner was widely seen as unfree and unfair. Nevertheless, Abdul-Kerim Arsakhanov of the Chechen election commission told Interfax on March 14 that there was “zero” chance of rigging the referendum results.

According to a “Prague Watchdog” report of March 14, mayors and other heads of local governments in Chechnya’s pro-Moscow administration are taking special care to make sure that they can report results that the Kremlin wants on March 23. Imran Ismailov found “indications that these leaders have been instructed to exert pressure on residents, and to report that 100 percent of the electorate voted for the constitution. In addition, it is expected that retirement and child support benefits will be paid on the eve of the referendum. According to some people, though, a proportion of ballots have already been filled out in support of the constitution and are stored in a secluded place, ready to surface at the appropriate time.”

Natalya Estemirova of the Grozny office of the human rights group “Memorial” told the Moscow Times that even though most Chechens have not read the constitution, most will vote anyway–and will vote in favor of it. “The brainwashing campaign in Grozny and in Ingushetia and the promises that are being given to the people now, including imminent compensation for destroyed housing, make them believe that the war will stop and they will have a normal life,” she said.

Pro-Moscow Chechens have been doing their best to heed the demand for more “visual propaganda” that came from Putin aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky during a recent visit to the republic, but they have found it difficult. One of the official leaders of the pro-referendum campaign, Khasin Tamaskhanov, told the news agency Novosti that as many as 70 percent of the pro-referendum signs, banners and other such outdoor advertisements placed along the streets of Grozny and other towns had been destroyed. Interfax reported that 30 signs calling on Grozny residents to take part in the referendum were destroyed during the night of March 14. In their place was handwritten a mysterious, three-letter abbreviation that some thought might stand for “Battalion of Mujahadeen Suicides.”

Anna Politkovskaya of Novaya gazeta confirmed that the pro-Kremlin side has had difficulty in keeping its signs from being torn down. She wrote in a March 17 report that she usually saw such signs only in the immediate vicinity of armed checkpoints. She also noted that the campaign for a “Yes” vote had a clear political subtext, with the pro-Putin party “United Russia” essentially monopolizing the field so that the state and the party, Soviet-style, had become indistinguishable from each other.

The Novaya gazeta correspondent found during her latest visit that the Moscow-appointed administration in Chechnya was using the state school system as a campaign network, distributing postcards to the pupils and encouraging them to write to Putin. In theory a schoolchild could write whatever he or she chose, but Politkovskaya learned that the postcards had to be sent via the principal’s office, where those with unwelcome messages could simply be discarded. Visiting one principal in Grozny, she found that there was no room on his desk for educational journals or lesson plans. It was covered instead with campaign materials for the referendum. She noted that Ruslan Yamadaev, head of the Chechen branch of United Russia, is also the republic’s minister of education.

Politkovskaya also visited Chechnya’s relatively peaceful Shali district, where the district head was presiding over a meeting of Chechen village elders to discuss the proposed constitution. Among the guest speakers was lawyer Musa Bagapov from Grozny, a key author of the constitution’s text. It soon became clear that nobody in the audience had actually read the proposed text or even knew anything about its strengths or weaknesses. This meant that the campaigners from Grozny “could tell the people whatever they might choose–nobody was in a position to debate with them.” There followed “a torrent of promises,” including one, for example, that suggested if the constitution were adopted Chechnya would have even more autonomy than it did under the Maskhadov government. It was even hinted that if the vote turned out “correctly,” Moscow would return to Chechnya two border regions lost to Ingushetia in the early 1990s. The elders remained silent, noticing that an officer from the local military command was filming the proceedings–and concentrating especially on those who asked questions.