HUFFINGTON POST
12/21/2011 11:19 am ET Updated Feb 20, 2012

Chechnya: Vladimir Putin's Party Wins 99 Percent

By Thomas Grove

GROZNY, Russia, Dec 21 (Reuters) - Dagmein Khaseinova
beams with pride recalling the day her Chechen village,
devastated a decade ago in a war launched by Vladimir Putin,
gave the Russian ruler's party nearly 100 percent support in a
parliamentary vote this month.

Her little village of Mekhketi, she said, is even on the way
to winning the cash prize she says authorities have promised
for the polling station registering the biggest turnout.

"(We've) already won the regional competition. In a few days
we'll hear whether we won throughout all of Chechnya,"
Khaseinova, 53, said, wearing a traditional Chechen scarf over
her head and squinting in the cold mountain air.

"The organizers of the polling station have been promised
some kind of prize money if they win," she adds, hiding a smile.

Putin's United Russia recorded a higher percentage of votes
in predominantly Muslim Chechnya, where federal troops fought
two wars since the fall of the Soviet Union, than anywhere else
in the country. Official results show support at 99.5 percent
and voter turnout of 99.4 percent.

Nationwide, the party won just under half the votes,
securing a slim majority in the State Duma. Even that outcome,
critics said, was the result of ballot stuffing and fraud.
Countless complaints have been filed; but not in Chechnya

Official monitors here have not lodged a single complaint of voting violations, but among many local residents, the outcome has stirred some incredulity, albeit cautiously expressed.

"United Russia is the party of Putin, and Chechnya would
never vote for Putin," said one middle-aged resident of the
regional capital of Grozny, who declined to give his name for
fear of retribution. "In the mind of every Chechen he is
associated with the bombing that destroyed Grozny and other
cities all over the region,"

"Voting for Putin is about as absurd as any vote with a 99
percent outcome," he said.

Regarding the competition between polling stations, the head
of Chechnya's Central Election Committee Ismail Baikhanov said
that a competition had been organised, but only with the aim of
"informing local populations, the technical equipping of polling
stations and visual campaigning".

International monitors were out in force on election day in
much of Russia, and say the vote was slanted in favour of United
Russia and marred by numerous instances of ballot stuffing.

But they did not observe the poll in Chechnya or the rest of
the North Caucasus because of security concerns over an
insurgency, rooted in past wars, being waged in the region.

Militants want to throw off Russian rule and create an
Islamist state.

Russia sent troops into Chechnya in late 1994 to try to
crush a drive for independence. Much of Grozny was flattened in
heavy fighting but the army struggled to quell separatist rebels
fighting a guerrilla war in the mountains.

Thousands of troops and fighters were killed, and various estimates put the civilian death toll in the tens of thousands, before the demoralised Russian army withdrew. Many more people who had their homes destroyed were displaced.

"DON'T WAG YOUR TONGUE!"

When Putin launched a second war in 1999 that established
federal control over Chechnya after a period of de facto
independence, Makhketi in Chechnya's Vedeno region saw some of
the fiercest fighting.

A little over a decade later, a left-over United Russia
election poster flaps in the wind over the quiet village square
with a huge picture of Chechnya's smiling leader Ramzan Kadyrov
donning a construction worker's hat.

Locals say Kadyrov's second wife hails from a family in the
village. Kadyrov says that although he accepts polygamy as a
Muslim practise, he has only one wife.

His strict rule has sparked accusations of human rights
violations, say rights groups, including extra-judicial
detention and torture. Few people, though, dare to talk about
their experiences for fear of retribution.

Villager Daudov Vasady, 79, said he had no choice but to
vote for United Russia.

"My wife and I, we voted for United Russia. If our (leader
Kadyrov) votes for United Russia then we have to as well," he
said.

"If I hadn't voted, if others wouldn't have voted, then
people would have noticed and it would have created problems,"
he said, refusing to explain futher.

As another villager speaks, a blue car carrying three men
drives past. One shouts from the car: "Don't wag your tongue
about anything personal!"

GIVEN UP MONITORING

On the popular Caucasian Knot internet site, a blogger who
was identified as lamro95 says all the teachers in the city were
called into work on the day of the elections to make sure they
voted.

"An acquaintance of mine voted three times in the same
polling station. Since the stations were in Chechen schools,
teachers voted several times."

Others say the key to the results was not in the force used
to make people vote, but in ballot stuffing.

Human rights workers say they have given up monitoring
elections. They say polling station workers told them they had
stayed up late into the night to fill ballot boxes with United
Russia votes long after polling stations had closed.

"We didn't monitor the elections because we knew there was
no point to it," said an independent rights worker who refused
to allow his name or the title of his organisation to be
published for fear of retribution.

"The turnout will always be 99 percent and the number of
votes (for the ruling party) will always reach 99 percent. We
should simply stop the elections and save everyone a lot of
money."

The day after the election, Chechnya's voting commission was
forced to raise the number of eligible voters in the republic,
after the number of ballots cast exceeded the registered voter
number by some 2,000 votes.

The head of Chechnya's voting committee Baikhanov said the
original number of voters -- 608,797 -- was already six months
old when it was announced as the number of voters on Dec. 2, two
days before the election.

"Since that time a number of people reached voting age, and
they cast their ballots. There were also those who voted with
absentee ballots, and there were military who have since come to
our region" he said.

Many people say they are content to accept the outcome of the election and want to maintain the small gains they have seen since the second Chechen war, but anger at the perception of vote rigging is not far from the surface.

POLITICS VS REAL LIFE

Isa Khadjimuradov, who was until recently the leader of the
left-leaning Just Russia party in Chechnya, said he had received
an awkward phone call from his party's headquarters in Moscow
the day after the election.

Why, he was asked, did the official results show that some
90 percent of the party's 12,000 members had cast their ballots
for another party?

"You can't look at the situation in Chechnya in the same
context as you look at the situation in the rest of Russia,"
said Khadjimuradov, who wore a traditional Chechen costume,
including a hat made from baby lambskin.

"Politics is not thought of here as real life. They affect
the authorities to some degree, but nonetheless, politics, the
political process is not really reflected in the lives of normal
people," he said.

Khadjimuradov carries an iPhone displaying a picture of
himself with Kadyrov, although they are from different parties.

Many Chechens say Kadyrov, a rebel who became a Kremlin
loyalist, is the engine for United Russia's performance.

He came to power three years after his father, the region's
first Moscow-backed leader, was killed by separatists in 2004
and has enjoyed a steady flow of Russian funds that he has used
to rebuild Grozny.

Across the city, United Russia flags flutter along the side
of the road, next to penants bearing the colours of the Chechen
and Russian flags. Pictures of a young, austere-looking Vladimir
Putin stare down at motorists across the small region.

Glitzy construction projects loom above the main
thoroughfare named Putin Prospect. Above a giant New Year's tree
in central Grozny, red lights spell out: "Thank You Ramzan For
Grozny".

Some local residents say Kadyrov uses the money to further
his own personal ambitions and establish a cult of personality
in the region, while channeling money and jobs to his own Benoi
clan, the largest and most powerful in Chechnya.

At a cafe in Grozny, Khadjimuradov's friends - other
functionaries in government offices - debated whether Kadyrov is
more like Peter the Great or Caliph Uthman, the Muslim leader
who brought Islam to neighbouring Dagestan in the 7th century.

"Kadyrov is a builder. He has a vision like Peter the Great
did," said Khadjimuradov.

Political analysts say there is real popularity for United
Russia among the people who have benefited from Moscow's funds
and recognise the importance of loyalty to the Kremlin which
results in heavy state funding.

"The support he enjoys from Russia is one of the fundamental
bases for stability in the region and the reason why he can
exercise so much authority ... So he has a reason to be
personally thankful to Putin," said Yevgeny Minchenko, director
of the International Institute of Political Analysis in Moscow.

In exchange for clamping down on Islamist insurgents, human
rights groups say Moscow ignores accusations of rights abuses
such as extra-judicial kidnappings and police torture.

The logic follows that as long as the region remains quiet
Moscow turns a blind eye to violations of Russia's secular
constitution as Kadyrov boosts his own authority by imposing his
own version of radical Islam.

Kadyrov has denied allegations of wrong-doing as attempts to blacken his name and says he works only to rebuild the region and keep peace.

SHARIA COURT

The North Caucasus region as a whole saw support for United
Russia much higher than in most other regions.

Neighbouring Dagestan and Ingushetia both showed United
Russia support above 90 percent.

Idris Abadiev, a former deputy in the parliament in
Ingushetia, and leaders of other local clans say the vote was
falsified in Ingushetia.

They complained to Ingushetia's Islamic court, which locals
say operates unofficially under the regional Mufti. There they
decided to sue Ingushetia leader Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and the
regional election committee head Musa Yevloyev.

"To protect the interests and the rights of our own people,
we have to pick our own deputies to enter parliament, not those
who have been assigned to us," said Abadiev, speaking in his
house outside of the city of Nazran.

A combination of corruption, religious militancy and clan
loyalties have inflamed the insurgency in the North Caucasus
which President Dmitry Medvedev has called Russia's biggest
domestic security threat.

Nearly 700 people have been killed in the first 11 months of
this year in violence between security officials and militants,
says the Caucasian Knot, which monitors violence.

"I didn't vote because it doesn't matter how you fill out
your voting ballot. Putin will always be in power. Putin doesn't
respect our laws, the laws of Shariah that we want here," said
26-year-old Malik Kastoyev.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

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