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A woman in the Chechen capital, Grozny, cast her vote in Russia's State Duma elections on September 18.

A woman in the Chechen capital, Grozny, cast her vote in Russia's State Duma elections on September 18.

While the overall outcome of Russia's State Duma elections came as no surprise, variations in the conduct of the election campaign, voter turnout, and results in the North Caucasus underscored the very real differences between its various republics in terms of political culture and the potential for an opposition candidate to win election. (The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)

While the overall outcome of Russia's State Duma elections came as no surprise -- the ruling United Russia party won at least 343 of the 450 mandates -- variations in the conduct of the election campaign, voter turnout, and results in the North Caucasus underscored the very real differences between its various republics in terms of political culture and the potential for an opposition candidate to win election.

At the same time, the consistently high level of support registered for United Russia in simultaneous parliamentary elections in several North Caucasus republics has been attributed to a combination of intimidation and flagrant procedural violations.

Of the 450 members of the new State Duma, half were elected in single-mandate constituencies nationwide and half on the basis of party lists.

Daghestan, the largest North Caucasus republic, encompasses three single-mandate constituencies, while the other six republics (Chechnya, Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, and Adygheya) have one each. Predictably, United Russia swept the board. (The reported winner in Adyghea, Vladislav Reznik, ran as an independent but is listed as a member of United Russia's faction in the outgoing Duma.)

That impressive showing for United Russia appears to have been achieved, however, partly by either refusing to register respected potential candidates who might have posed real competition (human rights campaigner Maksim Shevchenko in Daghestan, businessman Aly Totorkulov in Karachayevo-Cherkessia,and Murat Aguzarov, twin brother of deceased republic head Tamerlan Aguzarov,in North Ossetia) or pressuring them at the last minute to withdraw their candidacies (Sazhid Sazhidov, the coach of Daghestan's wrestling team), and partly by widespread violations such as multiple voting and ballot stuffing.

And the re-election of Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov's cousin Adam Delimkhanov with 93 percent of the vote should be contrasted with the modest 53 percent garnered in Karachayevo-Cherkessia by United Russia candidate Rasul Botashev. It has been suggested that many people who would have voted for Totorkulov had he been permitted to run voted instead for Communists of Russia candidate Eduard Marshankulov, who garnered some 1,500 votes more than Botashev in Cherkessk, the republic's capital.

Currying Favor?

The party-list vote showed a more nuanced variation in voter preferences, reflecting the number of political parties participating. But the percentage of the party-list vote that United Russia garnered across the North Caucasus was consistently higher than the nationwide figure of 54.28 percent, ranging from 96.15 percent in Chechnya, 90.11 percent in Kabardino-Balkaria, and 88.86 percent in Daghestan, to 75.9 percent in Ingushetia and 62 percent in Adygheya.Those figures may reflect falsification by the republican authorities in a bid to curry favor with Moscow by demonstrating the extent of popular support for Kremlin policy.

Voter turnout in the State Duma ballot likewise varied considerably across the North Caucasus, but none of the republics duplicated the nationwide decline of around one-fifth. (Participation in the Russian Federation as a whole was just 47.81 percent, dipping below 50 percent for the first time. In 2011, turnout was 60.21 percent, and in 2007 63.78 percent.)Indeed, the reported 86.87 percent turnout in Daghestan was higher than in 2011 (81.1 percent).

Chechnya, predictably, boasted the highest turnout figure (94.79 percent) compared with the 90 percent that Kadyrov had predicted. But the news portal Caucasus Knot quoted individual Chechen voters who -- on the basis of the number of ballot papers visible in transparent ballot boxes just two hours before the polls closed -- estimated the true figure at the polling station where they had voted as being far lower, possibly not exceeding 10 percent. (Chechens were also under pressure to vote for a third term for Kadyrov as republic head; according to the official returns, he garnered 97.94 percent of the vote.)

'Legitimizing A Farce'

Albert Esedov, who heads the opposition party Yabloko's Daghestan chapter, similarly calculated that actual turnout was no higher than 25 percent. That suggests that many voters in Chechnya and Daghestan share the opinion of the Daghestani lawyer who told Shevchenko's website that "by actually going to vote we are bestowing legitimacy on this farce."

The results of the elections for new republican parliaments held concurrently in Chechnya, Ingushetia, Daghestan and Adygheya largely duplicated those for the State Duma in terms of the level of support for United Russia. In Chechnya, where the level of support for United Russia is routinely inflated far beyond the bounds of the statistically plausible, it was said to have garnered 87.6 percent of the vote, which translated into 37 of the 41 parliamentary mandates; A Just Russia 5.63 percent; and the Communist Party 5.31 percent. Those two parties will thus each have two mandates. Curiously, the Party of Patriots which surpassed the 5 percent minimum required for parliamentary representation in 2014 received only 1.34 percent of the vote this time around.

In Ingushetia, United Russia, A Just Russia, the Communist Party, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) received respectively 75.95 percent, 7.96 percent, 5.13 percent, and 5.01 percent. In Daghestan, United Russia received 75.5 percent (72 mandates), A Just Russia 10.45 percent (10 mandates) and the Communist Party 9.14 percent (eight mandates).The outcome would no doubt have been different had the People Against Corruption party established six months ago, which analysts predicted could attract many disaffected voters, not pulled out of the ballot in July "with regret," citing pressure on its candidates. Rodina's Daghestan chapter followed suit a week later, narrowing still further the options for voters who categorically reject United Russia.

Adygheya proved the exception, with just 58.31 percent for United Russia, 15.3 percent for the Communist Party, 14.09 percent for the LDPR, and 7.15 percent for A Just Russia.

'Procedural Violations'

Opposition politicians, journalists, and independent analysts are all convinced that the officially promulgated results of both the State Duma and the parliamentary ballots (and of local elections in some municipalities) are the product of blatant procedural violations, and do not accurately reflect the number of actual votes cast for any given candidate or political party. Evidence of such violations has been chronicled most extensively in Daghestan; by contrast, officials in Chechnya, Ingushetia and North Ossetia all claimed that infringements were either non-existent or negligible.

Initially, some Internet providers sought to block access in Daghestan to the websites of the weekly Chernovik and a second independent paper, Novoe Delo, which similarly carried detailed reports of the apparently ubiquitous falsification of the vote.

One speaker at a press conference in Makhachkala on September 20 described how staff at one polling station in the city openly filled out quantities of voting papers.Public Chamber member Shamil Khadulayev reported that, at virtually every polling station in Makhachkala, the chairman of the local election commission took possession of the sealed ballot boxes even before the ballot papers had been counted.

Embittered Electorate

Oleg Melnikov, head of the civic organization Alternativa -- which helps people who are being exploited as slave labor -- whom participants in a straw poll conducted by Chernovik had named as the person they would prefer to represent them in the State Duma, described how a group of between 50 and 70 men forced their way into one Makhachkala polling station after the polls had closed and were prevented only by police intervention from stuffing quantities of additional ballot papers into the ballot boxes. Melnikov ran unsuccessfully as an independent State Duma candidate in Daghestan's Northern electoral district, where he was defeated by United Russia's incumbent candidate, Umakhan Umakhanov. He has since launched a petition on calling for the election results to be annulled.

Possibly in response to that initiative, Ella Pamfilova, who heads Russia's Central Electoral Commission (CEC), announced on September 21 an investigation into the allegations of widespread malpractice in Daghestan.

Yet while there is little doubt that falsification took place on a massive scale, it is virtually impossible to calculate exactly what percentage of the vote a given party really received. Yabloko's parliamentary candidates in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Daghestan are all skeptical of the official returns showing that the party failed to receive the minimum 5 percent of the vote to qualify for parliamentary representation.

Esedov calculated that Yabloko garnered between 8 and 12.5 percent in Daghestan, while veteran human rights campaigner Svetlana Gannushkina, who headed the Yabloko party list in Chechnya, is convinced the party received more than the 0.03 percent of the vote with which it was officially credited.

Whether or not the elections were, as affirms, the least democratic in Russia since 1991, the level of falsification will inevitably further deepen the rift between local political elites and an increasingly alienated and embittered electorate.

The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (file photo)

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (file photo)

A fatwa issued by a conference of Islamic scholars convened in Grozny by Ramzan Kadyrov seems to give the Chechen leader license to take any action he likes to punish those whose religious views don't chime with his own. (The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)

Two weeks ago, acting Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov convened in Grozny a conference of Islamic scholars to discuss the alleged abuse of Islamic ideas to propagate "extremism" and to establish the criteria for determining who are the true followers of the Sunna (the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad).

Conference participants, who included Ahmed El- Tayeb, rector of Cairo's Al-Azhar Islamic University, adopted a fatwa stipulating that the sole true adherents of traditional Islam are those who abide by Kalam scholastic theology, belong to one of the four madhhabs (legal schools), and follow the path of moral self-perfection espoused by the great teachers, primarily the Sufi sheikhs. It identifies the Salafi strain of Sunni Islam professed in Saudi Arabia as a "dangerous and erroneous contemporary sect," along with the extremist group Islamic State, Hizb ut-Tahrir, and the Habashis.

Several prominent theologians have taken issue with that ruling, however. The International Association of Islamic Scholars reportedly criticized the conference as "a shameful attempt to sow dissent within the Muslim community." Saudi professor Mohamad bin Abdel Rahman al-'Arefe had to disavow a report that he had branded Kadyrov an unbeliever and called for his death.

The Grozny conference was pegged to the 65th anniversary of the birth of Kadyrov's father, Akhmad, a former Chechen mufti whose four-year tenure as Kremlin-installed ruler after the 1999-2000 Chechen war is widely billed in official Chechen historiography as marking the final defeat of "international terrorists" -- a reference to forces loyal to then-Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov -- fighting in the name of Islam to "dismember the Russian Federation" by upholding Chechnya’s proclaimed independence.

Ramzan Kadyrov was not present at the opening session of the conference; instead he met late that evening (August 25) in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is not known whether Kadyrov attended subsequent sessions: the proceedings were conducted in Arabic, which he has never publicly demonstrated any fluency in.

Even before the formal end of the conference on August 27, disagreement was said to have arisen among the participants over the wording of the fatwa that reportedly led to the Russian delegation leaving prematurely. (One of its members subsequently declared that they had planned to leave early anyway due to unspecified other commitments.)

The Muslim Spiritual Boards of Daghestan and North Ossetia and Russia’s Central Spiritual Board apparently did not send representatives to the conference. Nor did Russia’s Mufti Sheikh Ravil Gaynutdin. The fatwa was nonetheless designated obligatory for all Russian Muslims.

The conference participants also adopted two further documents. The first was an appeal to Putin to ban Salafism in Russia and to designate as "extremism" any criticism of "traditional Islam."

It also proposed expanding the council of experts subordinate to the federal Justice Ministry, to whom courts would be required to refer any questions over whether or not a specific religious text was "extremist."

A further proposal was that the fatwa be regarded as the considered opinion of "leading Russian experts" when evaluating the activity of Muslim organizations and the preaching of individual clerics. Assuming that Kadyrov is counting on a key role in selecting those "experts" the fatwa could be adduced as legal action against respected Ingush clerics Khamzat Chumakov and Issa Tsechoyev, whom Kadyrov has publicly branded Salafis and threatened to kill.

The second document was a resolution calling for the establishment of a Council for Islamic Education, and also a Council of Ulema (Muslim scholars), which would rule on who is and is not a true follower of Sunni Islam.

Hostile Tone

The hostile and categorical tone of the fatwa, in conjunction with the proposals cited above, were widely construed by both clerics and secular commentators as an outright bid by Kadyrov to divide Russia’s Muslims into two categories: those who unquestioningly accept the importance he assigns to the teachings of the Sufi brotherhoods (and possibly also his own idiosyncratic and controversial version of what constitutes "traditional Islam" and those whose views are "erroneous."

What is more, as Saratov Oblast mufti Mukaddas Bibarsov points out, the question of who qualifies as a true follower of Sunni Islam was definitively resolved “centuries ago,” and has not (until now) been disputed. Bibarsov added that the fatwa fails to take into account crucial differences between Russia’s Muslim communities, specifically that Sufism is alien to the Muslims of Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and the northwest Caucasus.

The fact remains, however, that the Grozny conference was held with the express support of the Russian president, who apparently sees no problem in implicitly empowering Kadyrov to rule on decisions central to the lives and well-being of millions of believers across Russia.

Addressing Chechen Interior Ministry personnel last week, Kadyrov described the Grozny conference as having the same effect on the "unbelievers" (meaning the Salafis) as a bomb exploding, given that "the most authoritative Islamic scholars proved in the course of this forum that there is no scientific basis to substantiate their pernicious ideas."

In other words, Kadyrov apparently believes he has been given carte blanche by respected clerics to take any action he likes to punish -- with impunity -- anyone who dares to question his own religious views.

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About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.