Putin Faces Mounting Challenges in the North Caucasus Following Election “Win”

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 13 Issue: 6

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin won the March 4 presidential elections in Russia, as most observers had been expecting. Despite his landslide victory with nearly 64 percent of vote, many analysts agree that Putin will no longer be able to treat the presidency as a sinecure and will be forced to move ahead with reforms or face mounting challenges from the opposition. Moscow’s policy in the North Caucasus is one of the areas where change is likely, although not warranted. Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny has been very successful in illuminating the corrupt practices of the Moscow-installed governments in the North Caucasus, in particular in Chechnya (https://navalny.livejournal.com/681139.html, February 20; https://navalny.livejournal.com/688815.html, March 2). In the current political environment, Navalny’s focus on corruption in the North Caucasus has translated into popular Russian demands for cutting aid from Moscow to the region. The problem for Putin is that lavish and poorly overseen funds to the North Caucasus are part of an implicit pact between Moscow and the regional elites. These agreements, however, may be rendered unsustainable in the post-presidential election environment. Putin may be forced to choose between the unswerving allegiance of the North Caucasian elites and an ethnic Russian public increasingly angry at what is popularly regarded as the privileged position of the North Caucasus minorities inside Russia.
So far the symbiosis between Putin and the elites in the North Caucasus has worked out well for the Russian leader. In the March 4 elections, Putin received 99.76 percent of the votes in Chechnya and nearly 93 percent of the vote in Dagestan. Putin won over 92 percent of the vote in Ingushetia and over 91 percent in Karachaevo-Cherkessia (https://dagestan.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/202380/, March 5). Paradoxically, it appears that the worse the security situation in a republic, the higher percentage of its electorate voted for Putin, who presided over the deteriorating security situation for more than a decade. In Adygea, arguably the quietest territory in the North Caucasus, Putin received the lowest percentage in the region – a little more than 64 percent (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/202391/, March 5).
The high percentages that Putin won in the North Caucasus republics were manifestly fraudulent. According to some reports, police in Chechnya warned the locals about how they should vote, threatening to stop paying salaries and pensions. “These elections were the most dishonest and dirty that the Chechen republic has had in the past 10-15 years,” an anonymous civil activist told the Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot) website (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/202459/, March 6). In an effort to showcase transparency, the Russian government had ordered the installation of web cameras in all voting stations across Russia, so the authorities needed a massive voter turnout. Government employees were allegedly obliged to stay at the voting stations throughout the day in Chechnya (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/202285/, March 5). Numerous breaches of electoral procedures were reported in Dagestan, including multiple voting and the expulsion of independent observers. According to some reports, in a scheme to boost the turnout and voting for Putin, state employees were obliged to visit at least 10 voting stations to cast their ballots for the Russian prime minister (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/202359/, March 5).
Among all of Russia’s regions, only in the city of Moscow did Putin receive fewer than half the votes cast – just under 47 percent. Several other minority groups showed high support for Putin, such as Tatarstan where he won nearly 83 percent of the vote (https://www.gazeta.ru/politics/elections2011/2012/03/04_a_4024177.shtml, March 5). The discrepancy between the voting patterns in Moscow and in the regions suggests that as Putin strived to centralize power and Moscow’s role in Russia, he lost the support of Muscovites, while the regions provided more support for his rule. This would seemingly push Putin to adopt a more pro-regions policy. But giving more power to the regions and reducing their dependence on central government handouts could mean that the central government ends up losing control over them.
Meanwhile, the security situation in the North Caucasus remains extremely precarious. Despite heightened security on March 4, Election Day, militants attacked a voting station in Dagestan’s Khasavyurt district, killing three policemen. One of the attackers was also killed in the incident (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/202360/, March 4). On March 6, a police officer was killed in a police station in Makhachkala’s satellite city of Kaspiisk (www.riadagestan.ru, March 6). That same day, a female suicide bomber blew herself up at a police checkpoint in Dagestan’s Karabudakhkent district, killing four policemen (https://ria.ru/terrorism/20120306/586417863.html, March 4).
Given the dismal security situation in the North Caucasus and the Russian electorate’s opposition to excessive spending on the region, Putin’s choices in pursuit of regional policies are very limited. In fact, there are only two plausible policies that Putin’s Russia might pursue in the region. The first, and most likely, is to increase its military presence and the climate of fear in the North Caucasus in order to instill a semblance of order. The second possible policy is democratization – the introduction of more participatory government. The latter is not simply less likely, but it also contradicts the basis of the political system that perpetuates Putin’s regime. Participatory government presupposes having mechanisms for holding free and fair elections, at least to some degree. But if regional and local elections become transparent, the same rules would have to be applied to elections on the national level, which in turn would put Putin’s rule in peril. So the electoral fraud in the North Caucasus is intimately linked to Putin’s rule in Moscow.