Over the past week, two Russians who have long focused on political developments and human rights violations in the North Caucasus have announced their intentions of running in the September 18 elections to the Russian State Duma from that region.
The two are Svetlana Gannushkina, 74, who was reported to have been a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 and was a co-founder in 1990 of the NGO Civic Assistance, which she now heads; and journalist Maksim Shevchenko, 50, editor in chief of the website Kavpolit.com and a member of the presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights.
Both say they were motivated by profound concern at the deteriorating domestic political situation, which Gannushkina characterized as "not [merely] a crisis, but a collapse."
Although she admits that she has found her niche in human rights and is not cut out to be a politician, Gannushkina agreed to head the party list for Chechnya of the opposition Yabloko party.
The activist told journalists on July 13 that, even though she is not afraid to travel to Chechnya (where human rights campaigners are routinely harassed by the local authorities and several, including Memorial staffer Natalya Estemirova, have been murdered), she will not engage in electioneering on Chechen territory so as not to expose to pressure or reprisals anyone who turns out to show support for Yabloko.
To judge by the officially promulgated results of the December 2011 State Duma election, Yabloko's chances of success in Chechnya are virtually nonexistent. On that occasion the ruling United Russia party garnered over 99 percent of the vote.
This time around, very few Chechens are likely to have the courage to vote for any party other than United Russia, given that acting Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov tops the party's list of candidates. Gannushkina described her participation as more a gesture of moral support to the Chechen population than a serious bid for election.
Shevchenko, for his part, has availed himself of changes in Russia's election legislation to seek registration as an independent candidate in Daghestan's southern electoral district. Half the Duma's 450 members are elected on the basis of party lists and the other half in single-mandate constituencies.
Shevchenko is closely acquainted with, and has written extensively about, the situation in the North Caucasus in general and Daghestan in particular. In the fall of 2015, he appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin to set up a special group, under the aegis of the Federal Security Service, to investigate the murders of several Daghestani journalists that Putin had tasked investigators with solving one year earlier.
Shevchenko's stated rationale for seeking election is similar to Gannushkina's: He argued that social degradation in the North Caucasus and particularly in Daghestan has reached rock bottom and "things can't go on like this"; the only way to restore violated civic rights is through political engagement. At the same time, he described Daghestan as "potentially one of the most democratic regions of Russia" by virtue of its free press.
He said what finally persuaded him to advance his candidacy was his recent trip as a member of the presidential Council on Human Rights to Daghestan, where he found that "nothing had changed."
In the course of that visit, Shevchenko went to the mountain village of Gimri, formerly a stronghold of the now depleted North Caucasus insurgency.
Counterterrorism restrictions have repeatedly been imposed in Gimri, and the majority of the population, even children, has been entered on the notorious "prophylactic register" compiled by Daghestan's Interior Ministry of persons suspected of adhering to, or sympathizing with, the Salafi strain of Islam professed by the insurgency. (The legality of that register, which according to Daghestan Interior Minister Abdurashid Magomedov contains 20,000 names, is hotly disputed; anyone listed in it is subject to surveillance and arbitrary detention.)
Shevchenko described Gimri as "a ghetto," with homes subjected to artillery fire during earlier counterterror operations still in ruins and highways in a permanent state of disrepair. Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov, by contrast, implied in a recent interview that the residents have only themselves to blame for the chronic lack of public amenities, and that he repeatedly warned them that highway repairs and the construction of a kindergarten were contingent on ending insurgency attacks on law enforcement personnel.
In February 2014, local elders duly signed a formal agreement with the republic's government pledging to form a volunteer militia to assist local police in locating and apprehending militants, and to seek to persuade young men from Gimri who are fighting among the insurgency ranks to return home and surrender. Abdulatipov implied, however, that Gimri's residents have not kept their side of the bargain.
Untsukul district, in which Gimri is located, falls within Daghestan's southern electoral district. United Russia's candidate in that constituency is businessman Abdulmadjid Magaramov. Disgraced former Deputy Premier Abusupyan Kharkharov, who is reportedly close to Daghestan's mufti Akhmad-hadji Abdulayev, has announced his intention of registering as an independent candidate from one of the republic's three electoral districts, but has not yet specified which one.