Three prominent political figures from diverging backgrounds who hoped to run as independent candidates from North Caucasus constituencies have been refused registration to participate in the September 18 elections to the State Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament.
They are Russian journalist Maksim Shevchenko, a member of the presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights and editor in chief of the website Kavpolit.com, who sought to register as a candidate in Daghestan's Southern Electoral District; Aly Totorkulov, a Karachai businessman who heads the Russian Congress of Peoples of the Caucasus and who applied to register in the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic's sole electoral district; and Murat Aguzarov, a lawyer and former Republic of North Ossetia parliament deputy whose twin brother, Tamerlan, served briefly as Republic of North Ossetia head until his sudden death earlier this year.
In all three cases, the reason cited for denying registration was the purported invalidity of signatures the prospective candidates had submitted in their support. In fact, however, they appear to have incurred the displeasure of senior republican officials who intervened to prevent their participation in the ballot for fear that due to widespread popular dissatisfaction they would garner far more votes than the candidate representing the ruling United Russia party.
All three men intend to appeal to Russia's Central Election Commission the rulings by its republic-level counterparts.
No Friend Of Police
Shevchenko announced his intention of running for the Duma just one month ago, declaring that social degradation in the North Caucasus in general and Daghestan in particular had reached rock-bottom, and "things can't go on like this." The only way to restore violated civic rights, he said, was through political engagement.
Shevchenko has written extensively on human rights violations in Daghestan, in particular the seemingly arbitrary and at times brutal harassment -- allegedly by the republican Interior Ministry -- of individuals suspected of adhering to the Salafi strain of Islam, rather than the "official" Sunni Islam represented by the Shafii legal school, and which is heavily influenced by the local form of Sufism. Specifically, he has criticized the inclusion of peaceful and law-abiding citizens in the "prophylactic register" of suspected Salafi sympathizers created in 2010 on the basis of an edict, which has never been made public, by Daghestani Interior Minister Abdurashid Magomedov.
Daghestan's Salafi community is estimated at 40,000-50,000. Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov says there are 9,000 names on the prophylactic register, while Magomedov says there are 16,000.
Shevchenko wrote on August 11 to Russian Central Election Commission Chairwoman Ella Pamfilova asking her to monitor the signature-verification procedure in light of the Daghestani Interior Ministry's negative perception of him. The ministry responded with a statement defending its targeting of suspected Islamic extremists on the grounds that "our police colleagues died or were crippled in the fight against those whom Shevchenko seeks so selflessly to defend. Every Daghestani knows the external attributes of extremists: wearing a beard, attending the 'wrong' mosque, calling for the overthrow of the legitimate authorities, hatred for the law enforcement agencies."
In the event, the Daghestani Interior Ministry did not dispute that the signatures Shevchenko submitted were genuine, but claimed that in 7 percent of the total number the date was written in the same handwriting, which differed from that of the signatory. Shevchenko publicly accused Magomedov of having co-opted to assess the signatures in his support a relative of a rival prospective candidate. Shevchenko claimed Magomedov warned the woman in question she would be dismissed unless she had him removed from the list of candidates. Shevchenko argued that it was unacceptable for an agency that routinely engages in blatant human rights violations to determine whether or not he should be allowed to participate in the election.
As for Totorkulov, he initially sought to participate in the Duma election as a representative of United Russia. The selection of United Russia's parliamentary candidates in Karachayevo-Cherkessia is dictated less by ability than ethnicity. The Karachais are by far the largest ethnic group, followed by the Russians and the Circassians. It is accepted practice that the republic head is a Karachai, the prime minister a Circassian, and the parliament speaker a Russian.
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Given that the Karachais are unlikely to vote for a Russian, the Duma candidate elected from the republic's only single-mandate constituency is invariably a Karachai, while the two candidates elected on the basis of party lists are Karachai and Russian. (Of the 450 State Duma deputies, 225 are elected in single-mandate constituencies and the remaining 225 under the proportional system.)
In March, Totorkulov duly applied to register for the "primaries" to select United Russia's candidate in the Karachayevo-Cherkessia single-mandate constituency, but his application was rejected on the grounds, according to republican parliament speaker Aleksandr Ivanov, that "he could discredit the good name of the party."
Instead, acting Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic head Rashid Temrezov engineered the selection of a young, little-known republican parliament deputy, Rasul Botashev, despite a smear campaign arguing that Botashev was not a suitable candidate because he once studied Islamic law in Saudi Arabia. Botashev and Totorkuov are distantly related by marriage, their wives being cousins.
Totorkulov then declared his intention of participating in the election as an independent candidate but was refused registration. That decision was made in the absence of one of the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Election Commission's 14 members by a vote of six in favor and seven against, and despite a statement by commission Chairman Mekhti Baytokov to the effect that the federal Central Election Commission had recommended including Totorkulov on the ballot.
Totorkulov reportedly countered obstruction and official pressure ever since he announced his intention of running as an independent candidate. In early August, 90 NGO heads and human rights activists from across Russia (including Shevchenko) signed an open letter to President Vladimir Putin deploring the pressure brought to bear on Totorkulov in direct violation of Putin's injunction that the election campaign should be "open and honest, in a spirit of mutual respect."
Hope For Change Denied
Although a member United Russia, Aguzarov applied in late June to register as an independent candidate for the Duma ballot from North Ossetia's sole single-mandate constituency. He said he decided to do so, after lengthy reflection, "to justify the hopes of those people who believe in me." That Aguzarov succeeded in garnering more than 100,000 signatures in support of his candidacy in a region with a total population of just over 700,000 testifies to the extent of that trust, which is partly due to his brother's reputation: After a decade of economic stagnation and corruption, Tamerlan Aguzarov became a symbol of a new beginning that his successor, Vyacheslav Bitarov, is struggling to build on. The North Ossetian parliament is expected to confirm Bitarov, currently acting republic head, in that post on September 18.
Aguzarov deplored the refusal to register him as "spitting in voters' faces."
Assuming that the federal Central Election Commission does not intervene to reinstate them, none of the three candidates has any hope of redress in the immediate future. Totorkulov, however, is already thinking ahead to 2021, when Temrezov's second term in office will expire. In an extensive online question-and –answer session in June, he declared that "if the republican authorities continue in future to try to keep me out of politics, I shall have to start fighting for the post of republic head."