By Dale Street
Parliamentary elections were held in Chechnya on 27 November. 356 candidates representing seven different parties competed for election to 40 seats in the Popular Assembly (the lower house) and 18 seats in the Republic Council (upper house).
Clear winners in the elections, with 60% of the vote, were the pro-Putin United Russian Party. The Communist Party came second with 13% of the votes, and the Union of Right Forces came third with nearly 12% of the votes.
The elections, said Russian President Vladimir Putin, had “restored constitutional order” to the republic. The European Union was equally positive about the elections.
The reality of the elections, however, was somewhat different. In the week of the elections a report in the German magazine Der Spiegel – “Chechnya Heads into Fake Election” — described the current situation in Chechnya:
“The second war in Chechnya, which left most of the capital Grozny in ruins, began in autumn 1999. It cost thousands of people, including innumerable civilians, their lives. The only people who have felt any kind of tangible improvement in their lives from the promised ‘rebuilding’ have been a handful of corrupt officials.”
“The armed underground insurgency, with shootouts and bombing attacks, is now continuing into its seventh year. Each morning explosives experts must comb the streets for mines… Freelance hostage-takers are being replaced by uniformed kidnappers in masks, who carry out night-time raids and drag young suspected resistance fighters out of their homes to be murdered in the style of South-American death squads. Again and again, innocent people are killed.”
Real power in Chechnya (insofar as it can be said that anyone “exercises power”) lies with the acting Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, described in the same Spiegel article as “the Russian Caucasus republic’s real strongman, the leader of a troop of killers and torturers.”
According to a report published by Russian human rights groups on the eve of the elections: “The Kadyrov family, former warlords, have been granted control of the Chechen armed forces which they effectively deploy as their own private army (the kadyrovtsy) to intimidate any opposition to the settlement advocated by the Russians.”
Until a week before the elections Kadyrov had been the (unelected) Deputy Prime Minister. Kadyrov took up the position of acting Prime Minister after Abramov, the actual Prime Minister, had ended up in hospital. A HGV had rammed his armoured Mercedes, just days after he had voiced mild criticism of preparations for the elections.
Only Russian political parties, which have neither a membership nor an organisational structure in Chechnya, took part in the elections. And they did so under the instructions of the Kremlin. One member of the United Russian Party, the ruling party in the Russian Federation, told a visiting American academic that “nobody would be allowed to participate in the elections who had not already had negotiations with Moscow on what their role was going to be.”
In order to give the required Chechen “flavour” to the elections, various Chechens were press-ganged into standing as candidates for the Russian parties. The decisions on which party they would “represent” were taken in Moscow. Former Chechen Defence Minister Khambiev, for example, agreed to stand as a candidate for the Union of Right Forces only after 40 of his relatives had been kidnapped and held hostage as a bargaining chip.
None of the candidates who contested the elections advocated self-determination for Chechnya. According to Lev Ponamarev of the All-Russian Movement for Human Rights: “There is a dictatorship of Kadyrov now in Chechnya. Even those in favour of a union with Russia still have to support Kadyrov, or leave the political stage. And I’m not even talking about the real political opponents, who cannot even express their opinions in principle.”
The article published in Der Spiegel posed the issue in more straightforward terms: “Supporters of outright Chechen independence or even simply of the ‘broad autonomy’ that Putin once promised are afraid to even submit candidate lists for the elections. These days ‘separatists’ in Chechnya are not legal participants in a political struggle — instead they face jail, the torture chamber, or even a firing squad.”
Russian human rights organisations collectively refused to monitor the elections, on the basis that to do so would be to give legitimacy to elections which had been flawed from the outset.
According to a spokesperson for the Memorial human rights organisation: “Conditions in Chechnya do not allow a normal vote. Free and fair elections cannot take place in conditions of ongoing war and military operations, of continuing abductions of people, beatings, torture, arbitrary executions, in an atmosphere of fear and violence.”
Lyudmila Alekseyeva, who heads the Moscow Helsinki Group, declared that there was “no point” in monitoring the elections as every previous election or referendum which her organisation had monitored in Chechnya had been rigged, and the election of 27 November was unlikely to be any different.
A measure of the rigging of previous elections is provided by the fact that in the March 2004 Russian presidential elections Putin won 92% of the votes cast in Grozny. That score makes Putin more popular in Grozny — a city twice laid waste in a decade by Russian troops, a city of which the mayor describes himself as “mayor of the most destroyed city in the world” — than in his native St. Petersburg.
A further peculiarity of the Chechen parliamentary elections was the extension of the franchise to sections of the occupying Russian forces. There are currently about 80,000 Russian troops stationed in Chechnya (nearly one for every ten Chechens). About 46,000 of them are Ministry of the Interior troops, and the rest are Ministry of Defence troops. The latter were given voting rights in the elections.
On the ground in Chechnya, the elections change nothing. The script was written in Moscow. The roles were allocated in Moscow. The competing parties were despatched from Moscow. And the outcome was decided in Moscow. In Chechnya itself, on the other hand, the kadyrovtsy, the Russian troops, and the Islamist jihadis will continue with their plunder and devastation of the country.
In propaganda terms, however, Putin is attempting to present the elections as a step towards the “normalisation” of the situation in Chechnya. November 27th, claims Putin, marked “the election of a legitimate representative organ of power, that is: a parliament.” The European Union, with Britain in the presidential role, is obviously intent on giving credence to such hollow claims.