Moscow, 16 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- One of the first Russian leaders to congratulate Bashkortostan's newly re-elected President Murtaza Rakhimov was Federation Council Chairman Yegor Stroyev. Last year, Stroyev won a gubernatorial contest in the Orel region that in many ways is reminiscent of the Bashkortostan vote. The Orel vote was unanimously criticized by Russian pro-reform politicians, as lacking the basic elements of a democratic ballot.
As in Orel, voters in Bashkortostan had only two names to choose from on their ballot papers. Only one candidate was allowed to oppose Rakhimov in last weekend's ballot, despite last minute action by Russia's Supreme Court.
The second candidate, the republic's forestry minister, Rif Kazakkulov, was keen to say in television interviews broadcast on the eve of the vote that he is a Rakhimov loyalist, adding that there was "no difference at all" between his electoral program and that of the incumbent. The same happened in Orel last October, when Stroyev had only one opponent, who openly campaigned for Stroyev.
Election observers suggest Kazakkulov was running only to give the impression that Bashkortostan's election was actually a free-and-fair competition. According to Russian legislation, an election is invalid if only one candidate is running. However, most observers, including commentators in Moscow's leading newspapers, noted, in articles published today, that the one main thing that distinguished the presidential election in Bashkortostan from the vote in Orel is that Rakhimov did not obtain Stroyev's landslide victory.
In Orel, Stroyev obtained more than 90 percent of the vote. Results released yesterday in Bashkortostan's capital, Ufa, indicate Rakhimov won a second term, obtaining about 70 percent of the vote, while Kazakkulov gained about nine percent.
Russian observers note that a significant numbers of voters voted against all candidates in the election. Turnout was reported at 70 percent. Rakhimov's opponents was reported to view the 'against all vote' as a form of protest, as Rakhimov's re-election was widely considered inevitable.
The Moscow daily "Russky Telegraf" today quoted a member of Russia's Central Electoral Commission monitoring the election in Bashkortostan, Olga Zastrozhinaya, as saying that the fact that about 17 percent of voters cast ballots against all candidates can be considered "a record for a republican ballot." According to Russian news agencies, the number of voters casting ballots in Ufa against all candidates was nearly 35 percent.
Another Moscow newspaper, "Kommersant daily," suggested the high 'against all vote' figure resulted from the fact that one of the candidates, who was not allowed to take part in the election, State Duma deputy Aleksandr Arinin, has many sympathizers in the capital. Last month, Arinin, the republic's former Prime Minister Marat Mirgazyamov and another contender, former banker Rafis Kadyrov, were excluded from the ballot. Rakhimov said, and the republic's electoral commission repeated in a statement, that the signatures in support of other candidates had been collected "in an underhanded way."
Arinin and Mirgazyamov appealed the decision in the Moscow-based Supreme Court. In a last-minute decision last week, the Court ruled these two candidates should be reinstated, as their names had been illegally left off the ballot. Bashkortostan's electoral commission -- viewed as loyal to Rakhimov -- refused to comply.
Two days before the vote, electoral commission officials in Ufa said they had received new, unspecified evidence of irregularities during the required collection of signatures in support of candidates. The officials said they had received letters in which an unspecified -- and unchecked -- number of voters, mostly from rural villages far away from the republic's capital, had complained that signatures in support of Rakhimov's opponents had been forged, or obtained under pressure. In Arinin's case, the commission also said the candidate had violated a financial regulation, namely using money from the electoral fund before being registered.
Rakhimov's detractors, as well as his opponents' campaign managers maintained in interviews with RFE/RL before the vote that the issue was political -- not a question of violation of electoral rules. According to this view, Rakhimov had decided other candidates should not be allowed on the ballot, and the electoral commission complied, using the alleged violations as a pretext. Such an assertion appears in today's "Kommersant." The daily quotes anonymous Rakhimov campaign officials in Ufa as saying that the President was sure of his victory in any case, but that he and his close advisers had simply decided that he should maintain his image of unchallenged leader in the republic.
The newspaper also quoted Rakhimov as saying, before the vote, that one of the candidates, Arinin, "did not deserve to become president," because of his lack of experience at the local level. Rakhimov always says that Bashkortostan is his "destiny," and claimed he's more popular among the republic's four million citizens than Moscow's own strongman, Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. According to the campaign managers quoted by "Kommersant," Rakhimov sincerely thinks that "competing in an open election with a candidate of lesser political weight (Arinin) would mean lowering one's image by one's own hand."
However, analysts say the tactic backfired. Rakhimov's conduct of the campaign provoked sharp criticism in the republic and among Moscow democratic circles.
In an interview with RFE/RL yesterday, Duma deputy Vyacheslav Igrunov of the Yabloko faction said Moscow's Central Electoral Commission has ample reason to declare the election invalid, because of the human rights violations, and freedom-of-the-press violations that took place preceding the vote.
And, the leader of "Russia's Democratic Choice," Yegor Gaidar, speaking on behalf of his party, called the election an "anti-constitutional farce."
Local media in Bashkortostan provided overt support for Rakhimov, and last month authorities shut down the Titan independent radio station, which had broadcast interviews with opposition candidates, and arrested the station director. This prompted protests, involving several thousand residents of Ufa and officials in the opposition's camp said that the protest showed, at least to Ufa residents, that the election had been unfair and that opposition to Rakhimov's methods of governing is increasing.
Arinin and Mirgazyamov, have vowed to get the election overturned and appeal the election results to Russia's Supreme Court. Some observers in Moscow say that this could lead to an invalidation of the election, but other are skeptical.
Analysts point to the wide support the powerful and influential Rakhimov received from most Russian politicians before the vote. Former prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, the leader of the Our Home Is Russia movement, endorsed Rakhimov's re-election bid during a visit to Bashkortostan June 10, and called on voters to support the incumbent, saying that Rakhimov is "a man who not only knows what needs to be done, but how to do it."
Chernomyrdin, who announced he will run for a seat in the State Duma in September, seemed to be keen to obtain Rakhimov's support for his announced presidential bid in 2000.
In 1996, Rakhimov's support proved very useful for Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who also backed Rakhimov's re-election bid. After the first round of voting in the 1996 Russian Federation presidential election, Yeltsin trailed challenger Gennady Zyuganov badly in the returns from Bashkortostan. But, following an endorsement from Rakhimov, Yeltsin carried the republic easily in the second round. Even more importantly, some analysts argue, is the fact the Bashkortostan, in 1993, did not support the new Russian constitution drafted by Yeltsin, and, which gave Yeltsin sweeping powers. Rakhimov campaigned against the constitution, as he sought a new power-sharing deal with Moscow. Despite this, Rakhimov has been loyal to Yeltsin on most issues since 1993.
Members of Rakhimov's family control the republic's oil and financial sectors and the President, who has the right to appoint local administrators, unlike other Russian regions, keeps a tight grip on virtually all the most important economic and agricultural industries in the republic.
An analyst unwilling to be cited by name said, "this is not the first time when the center proves that it is unable, and sometimes also unwilling, to challenge powerful regional leaders. Keeping good relations with them is, for the time being at least, more important and fruitful for Moscow."