Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 11

Add one more to the list of independent eyewitnesses who flatly deny Russian claims of a huge turnout for Chechnya’s March 23 constitutional referendum. Nathalie Nougayrede of Le Monde told Radio Radicale on March 25 that she saw no long lines at polling stations in Grozny, where she spent referendum day. She said that Grozny was “practically deserted” that day: “At one or two polling stations I saw a few people, maybe four or five. Twenty or twenty-five during the whole day….Everyone I spoke to in the days leading up to the referendum said they had no intention of voting.” She added that at one particular polling station she knew that only several dozen people turned out, but “at the end of the day the chief electoral officer declared that around 3,000 people had voted there.”

The official results of the referendum seem even more dubious in light of the findings of an admittedly unscientific opinion poll released by the human rights organization Memorial. It was conducted in Chechnya and Ingushetia from February 22 to March 14. With just weeks to go before the referendum, Memorial found that only 12 percent of respondents expressed a wish to vote in the referendum, while 20 percent said that they had not yet decided and 68 percent said that they would not take part. (Detailed results are available on the organization’s website,

With the help of volunteers from other nongovernmental organizations, Memorial surveyed 656 people in Chechnya and in refugee camps in Ingushetia. Its report acknowledged that under current circumstances, which include physical dangers both to pollsters and to respondents, it was not possible to conduct a proper survey of a fully representative sample of the Chechen electorate. Over-represented in the Memorial poll were students, faculty members of schools and universities, policemen and health care workers. “But at least,” suggested the report, “it can serve as an indicator of the moods and opinions of the youngest and most active.”

Only 4 percent of those responding to the Memorial questionnaire agreed that “the necessary conditions in Chechnya exist for free expression of the will of the people:” 79 percent disagreed.

Asked what changes they expected would follow if the constitution were adopted, only 6 percent said that they expected “gradual normalization.” Another 36 percent said that things would remain as before, while 34 percent expected things to get worse.

The poll found that the authorities had managed some measure of success in informing Chechens about the proposed constitution’s text. Some 22 percent said that they had read the text, and 15 percent that they knew about its basic provisions from newspaper and television reports.

Also over-represented in the poll, the “Memorial” report noted, were residents of areas who were physically accessible to those conducting the poll. Those areas included the cities of Grozny and Gudermes and the areas around them, and refugee camps in Ingushetia. These of course were also the areas most likely to have been reached by the pro-referendum campaign, though the poll also included the Shatoiski district in the southern highlands.

Another anomaly about the referendum is that the official figures actually show higher rates of turnout in the most rebellious sections of the republic. The Central Election Commission posted a regional breakdown on its website ( on March 23, when its preliminary report claimed that the turnout was 79.63 percent for Chechnya as a whole. The figures for turnout in the southern highlands included 84.9 percent for the Nozhai-Yurtovski district, 82.92 percent for the Shatoiski district, 99.58 percent of the Sharoiski district, 91.37 percent for the Itum-Kalinski district, and 88.23 percent for the Vedenski district. (The latter is especially well known as the family stronghold of militant warlord Shamil Basaev.) In the more securely Russian controlled north, by contrast, the authorities claimed turnout rates of 78.45 percent for the Shelkovski district and 68.11 percent for the Naurski district.

The Le Monde correspondent Nathalie Nougayrede explained this paradox as follows: “In the villages that are surrounded by the Russian army and where the army carries out frequent raids and the people are terrified, in other words in many isolated mountain villages, it is very likely that the turnout was high simply because people were ordered to vote. Because if the number of voters in a certain village hadn’t been as high as the number expected by the authorities, the inhabitants would have been exposed to further raids by soldiers and to further violence.”

Members of the Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation charged at a March 25 round table in Nazran, Ingushetia, that a key technique for falsely inflating the turnout figures was the use of additional voter lists, to which officials at local polling stations could quickly add voters not previously registered. This method made it easier for a voter to cast several ballots in several localities. A local human rights organization, “Ekho Voiny,” said that three buses had been observed carrying passengers from village to village for just that purpose.

It was slightly less than a year ago that the Kremlin’s favored candidate for president of Ingushetia, Murat Zyazikov, a veteran KGB and FSB officer, was officially declared the winner of the April 28 run off election. The declaration came despite the fact that Zyazikov had received only 19.4 percent of the vote in the first round against 31.5 percent for a more independent minded rival. Correspondent Alla Barakhova of Kommersant witnessed numerous irregularities in the run off, such as the distribution of ballots with the name of the Kremlin’s candidate already marked (see John Dunlop’s account in Chechnya Weekly, May 14, 2002). On balance, the evidence is convincing that the recent Chechnya referendum was another vote rigged in the classic Soviet tradition.