The experience of last March’s referendum taught international election observers a bitter lesson: The Kremlin will use their mere presence at such a rigged affair as a seal of legitimacy, no matter what those observers actually report. Monitors from organizations such as the OSCE and the Council of Europe stayed away from last Sunday’s presidential vote, viewing it as hopelessly tainted by the removal of all credible opposition candidates just twenty-four days earlier. Their absence, however, means that we now have less information from independent sources about what actually happened on election day. Nevertheless, sufficient information is available from both domestic and international journalists to make it clear that the election was far from free or fair.
Ivan Sukhov of Vremya novostei observed that “the lists which show how many people have already voted and how many have yet to vote, and which any citizen has the legal right to read, were missing in almost all the polling places. In some polling places it seems that there were no lists whatever of those eligible to vote; the few who came to vote found that the workers at those polling places did not check names and addresses against a prepared list, but merely recorded on blank sheets of paper whatever names the voters gave them. The observers from the candidates and parties…sat on the chairs provided for them and meticulously carried out their prescribed function: They observed. Depending on the location, they did this with more or less noticeable facial expressions of alienation and disenchantment. ‘Have there been any violations?’ we asked one young lady, an observer for Buraev’s campaign… ‘Yes,’ she quietly nodded, ‘you know there have been.’ ‘Just what?’ ‘We can’t tell you, we would have problems if we did.’ A man of about 50 came up and explained the observer’s obvious embarrassment: ‘Young man, you understand that you are here as visitors, you take a look and then you leave–but we have to live and survive here. If I tell you today whom I voted for, tomorrow they will cut off my head.”
According to Russky kurier, “at every polling place were observers from Kadyrov’s campaign staff, observing with interest how people were voting…spying on their ballots. Members of the election commission were working to persuade people to vote for Kadyrov.”
Sergei Shimovolos of the Moscow Helsinki Group told the Los Angeles Times that he witnessed many violations in the Shali district in southern Chechnya, such as voters casting ballots other than their own and independent observers being barred from observing the counting of ballots.
Shamil Buraev, one of the few truly serious opposition candidates, told the radio station Ekho Moskvy that his staff found numerous violations of the election rules. The most common type of election fraud, he said, was to give a single voter multiple blank ballots–as many as ten. In some cases the voter had to present the passports of other citizens to whom he would ostensibly give these ballots, in others he did not even have to do that. Buraev also said that officials at several polling places in the Kurchaloi district denied entry to observers from his campaign.
Said Bitsoev of Novye izvestia observed a throng of cheerful citizens in the center of Grozny, who turned out to be employees of a municipal utility. They told him that they were working as a “flying brigade of voters,” traveling from one polling place to another as needed–wherever the number of real voters was especially low–in order to boost the apparent turnout.
The website Gazeta.ru reported that Kadyrov violated the legal ban on election day campaigning by declaring before television news cameras when he arrived at his home neighborhood’s polling place to vote on Sunday that “nobody but me will be able to bring peace to Chechnya.” According to gazeta, “none of the electoral officials present dared to reprimand him.”
In Alkhan-Yurt, home town of former opposition candidate Malik Saidullaev (forced off the ballot by a controversial court decision on September 11), two reporters for the daily Moskovsky komsomolets were unable to find any Kadyrov posters, though they did find conspicuous graffiti proclaiming “Malik–our president.” They wrote that the Saidullaev family home “resembles a fortress. It is surrounded by sandbags, on the roof is a machine gun…the security force numbers about 500, working in shifts.”
In Grozny, according to Moskovsky komsomolets, Kadyrov campaign posters had been hung on all the ruined buildings. The polling places displayed an apparently official poster showing all the candidates. Kadyrov was in the center, wearing a traditional Chechen “papakha” fur hat, while all the others were bareheaded.
According to the official figures as of Tuesday, about 85 percent of the electorate showed up at the polls to cast ballots, and of these about 80 percent voted for Kadyrov. But there is substantial reason to doubt the claims of high turnout as well as of Kadyrov’s alleged victory margin. A Chechen refugee in Ingushetia told Jim Heintz of the Associated Press that only thirty-two of the 850 adult Chechen residents of his camp accepted the government’s offer of a free bus ride to a polling place within Chechnya, and that even most of these thirty-two were interested only in the free transportation and did not intend to vote.
Olga Allenova of Kommersant reported that Grozny’s main thoroughfare, Prospekt Pobedy, looked “dead” on election day: “There were no people and no cars on the streets….The liveliest place along the Prospekt is the market, but today there was not a soul there: Since the previous evening, retail trading within the city had been prohibited.”
According to Russky kurier, many Grozny residents left the city several days before the election–“not wanting to take risks and fearing attacks either from the rebel guerrillas or from the special services….Some scattered to rural villages, others traveled to neighboring Ingushetia….Some establishments gave their workers time off until Tuesday.
Sukhov of the website Vremya novostei reported that “in Grozny–at least, in those places which this correspondent could visit without an official escort–there could be found no elevated zeal on the part of the residents. Overall the city looked dead; the crowds around the polling places consisted mostly of security guards and police.”
Agence France-Presse reported on October 5 that “despite efforts by the pro-Russian authorities to produce a festive atmosphere, with barbecues selling grilled meat outside polling stations and loud rock music blaring, AFP correspondents reported extremely low turnout. At Alkhan-Kala, a village southwest of Grozny, in the morning only one person was voting every half-hour. At a polling station in central Grozny, out of 1,099 registered voters, only 170 had voted by 1:30 p.m.”
According to Zaindi Choltaev (see the preceding article), the consensus among his contacts in Chechnya was that from 10 to 20 percent of the electorate took part in the voting. Summing up reports from its own monitors, the Moscow Helsinki Group announced that none of them ever saw more than three people at the same polling place at the same time.
The Kadyrov-controlled broadcast media apparently used a last minute trick to try to boost turnout. Said Bitsoev of Novye izvestia reported that on the night before the election, a Grozny radio station broadcast a “sensational” piece of news: The federal election authorities had supposedly issued a last minute order reversing the exclusion of Malik Saidullaev from the presidential race. In the morning, of course, citizens found that this was untrue as soon as they arrived at their polling places and looked at their ballots. Many concluded that it had been a piece of deliberate disinformation designed to get them to come to the polls.
The clumsy removal of all the credible opposition candidates, while ensuring Kadyrov’s easy victory, is still seen by many as a tactical mistake. It “proves the Kremlin was afraid,” Aleksei Malashenko, a Moscow-based expert on the politics of Islam for the Carnegie Endowment, told the Christian Science Monitor. “Putin could say ‘look, there’s competition, there’s democracy.’ But [the Kremlin] preferred to get their own president in Chechnya without any competition.”