Russia’s election officials were too ambitious for their own good on March 23. If they had reported that, say, 60 percent of Chechens had turned out to vote in that day’s constitutional referendum and that 60 percent of those had voted ‘Yes,’ that would have been enough to meet their needs. But by claiming a turnout of 85 percent and a ‘Yes’ vote of a mind boggling 96 percent in Russia’s most rebellious province, they have left themselves open to caricature and charges of having revived the fake unanimity of Soviet elections under Stalin and Brezhnev.
[As this issue went to press, the head of the election commission for Chechnya announced that all votes had been counted. A March 26 Interfax report quoted Abdul-Kerim Arsakhanov as claiming that 89.48 percent of eligible voters had taken part in the referendum, and that 95.97 percent voted for the proposed constitution. It should be noted, however, that these are not the OFFICIAL figures. The election commission must still conduct a formal session and sign the appropriate documents.]
The authorities actually claimed that the highland district of Vedeno, a stronghold of pro-separatist sentiment and of rebel activity, had an even higher turnout (86 percent) than the average. Moreover, in a briefing reminiscent of Nikolai Gogol’s classic “Dead Souls,” Moscow’s chief election official, Aleksandr Veshnyakov, said that the number who voted in all of Chechnya was greater than the 540,000 who had officially registered. He explained the discrepancy by saying that many voters were refugees who did not register in advance but who nevertheless showed up on referendum day. Such voters had their documents checked very thoroughly, he told the Interfax news service on March 24.
Several independent observers questioned such claims. Anna Neistat of Human Rights Watch, who spent referendum day in Ingushetia, told the Russian website Grani.ru that the turnout there “was extremely low. According to our data, about 5,000 people voted out of the more than 50,000 registered displaced persons.” (Two polling stations were open in Ingushetia, so refugees there did not have to visit Chechnya in order to vote.) A well-informed source who had also observed the Ingushetia voting told Jamestown by telephone from Moscow that the authorities provided free bus transportation to the two polling stations in Ingushetia, while no such service was available in Chechnya itself. Indeed, in Chechnya voters had to make their own way to the polls through areas known to be physically dangerous, unlike in Ingushetia. Nevertheless, the authorities claimed that the turnout in Chechnya was even higher than in the adjoining province.
Neistat said that the Russian authorities rejected her request for permission to visit Chechnya itself, but that she was able to get eyewitness reports about the voting there from the many contacts that Human Rights Watch has in the region. “They all talked about the very low level of activity by the voters. Moreover, a whole series of incidents took place on Saturday and Sunday, about which nothing was said in the mass media. At nighttime people shot at polling stations. Two mines exploded, one of them killing several servicemen and at least one civilian.” She also told Grani.ru that her team had spoken with some people who had voted at Vedeno and who denied the media reports of high turnout there. “About five military servicemen showed up at the polls for every one [Chechen] voter there.” (The Russian military newspaper “Krasnaya Zvezda” (“Red Star”) said on March 25 that, according to the Ministry of Defense, 98.7 percent of eligible Russian troops had voted.)
The Russian human rights organization “Memorial” also expressed doubt about the official turnout figures. Lida Yusupova of Memorial told Timur Aliev of Prague Watchdog that “when there was a television report about a huge line of voters at the polling station in Grozny School No. 7, we rushed over and saw only five people.”
“How is it possible that by 10:00 AM the turnout in Sharoy had already reached 40 percent?” asked Memorial activist Usam Baysaev. “The answer is that 1,500 people live in the Sharo-Argun village, but there are also 4,000 Russian border guards there and they obviously increased the percentage.” He said that the main danger of vote-rigging would come when the results were tabulated after the polls had closed.
Correspondent Alex Rodriguez of the Chicago Tribune reported in a March 25 article filed from Grozny that he and other journalists “taken on a carefully structured government tour of polling places observed only handfuls of people showing up to vote.” His observations were confirmed by several interviews, such as one with a Grozny resident who spent much of the day “outside School Number 7, watching a trickle of voters go inside to cast their ballot. Later he watched in disbelief as newscasts reported government estimates of turnout in his region as high as 50 percent.”
Rodriguez reported “clear signs” of voting irregularities: For example, “a reporter for the French newspaper Le Figaro said he walked into a polling place, presented his French passport and was allowed to vote.”
Correspondent Nick Paton Walsh of The Guardian (United Kingdom) also succeeded without difficulty in voting illegally at polling station No. 272, a Grozny nursery school. There, “no officials objected to the taking of a blue ballot paper and the discreet dropping of a ‘yes’ vote into the box.” Walsh observed tartly, “It is unlikely that the illegitimate vote will alter the widely anticipated endorsement of Kremlin plans.”
According to Rodriguez of the Chicago Tribune, “it also appeared as if there was no clear mechanism to ensure that displaced Chechens, who were allowed to cast a ballot at any polling place, did not vote twice. Asked about the issue, Chechen election official Abdul-Kerim Arsakhanov said, ‘It’s not in the nature of Chechens to cheat.'”
The Moscow-based Prima news agency, which specializes in human rights, reported that “anyone who came to a polling station was required just to give one’s real or fake address and full name to obtain a ballot.” Nevertheless, reporters who visited the polling station at School Number 7 in Grozny told Prima that only seven people turned out to vote there.
New York Times correspondent Michael Wines, however, reported observing high turnout at the village of Chernokosovo in northwestern Chechnya.
Anna Neistat of Human Rights Watch noted that she and her colleagues received several reports of refugees being forced to take part in the referendum; there were, for example, threats that their humanitarian food rations might be stopped. But she acknowledged that “we heard this only from some people–it’s possible that this phenomenon did not take place on a mass scale.”
The Moscow daily Kommersant reported on March 25 that, according to its own informal survey of Grozny residents on referendum day, those who voted ‘Yes’ were supporting not the specific text of the constitution–which few had actually read–but simply peace in general. The “Yes” voters were those who accepted the authorities’ argument that the only alternative to the proposed constitution was the continuation of war without end and the destruction of the Chechen people. “The Chechens accepted not a constitution, but a proposal to save their own lives,” concluded the Kommersant account.
Buvaisar Arsakhanov, deputy head of the election commission for Chechnya, said on March 25 that final results would be released the next day. As expected, the Kremlin is already invoking the referendum to delegitimize even discussion of the possibility of Chechen independence. President Putin said on March 24 that separatist guerrillas are now fighting against the will of their own people and that that the referendum has “solved the last problem associated with Russia’s territorial integrity”.
Mikhail Shevelev wrote in a March 25 article for the weekly Moskovskie novosti that “the main feeling in Chechnya this spring is fear. People fear everyone and everything, all the time. They are afraid to go and vote, because the enemies of the referendum have promised to punish those who take part in it. (The words ‘punish’ and ‘murder’ are synonyms in contemporary Chechen.) They are afraid not to vote because of the rumor that those who do not vote will lose their pensions and compensation for their lost homes. And they are afraid of informers–on both sides.”