Bashkortostan's incumbent President Murtaza Rakhimov is running for a third presidential term in a 7 December ballot, concurrently with elections for the Russian State Duma. But yesterday's discovery by rival candidates of possible plans to falsify the ballot may lead to a postponement in the presidential vote.
Prague, 5 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Incumbent President Murtaza Rakhimov, who has ruled the sovereign republic of Bashkortostan for 13 years, is seeking re-election on 7 December. But with just days to go before the planned elections, two of his seven rivals are claiming they saw a batch of false ballot papers at a printing plant in Ufa, the republic's capital. That apparent attempt at election fraud and vote-rigging threatens to disrupt the election.
Rakhimov, who is backed by the Kremlin's Unified Russia party, is the clear favorite of the eight candidates contesting the ballot. But his tight control over his republic appears to have eroded in recent years. Rakhimov is believed to have lost his grip on the courts, the tax service, and the local branch of the Federal Security Service. He has also been embarrassed by a major scandal in which the Russian Tax Ministry accused the Ufa oil refinery of withholding 12 billion rubles ($405 million) in taxes. For that reason, some believe that he will not win a clear first-round victory in what will be the first ballot in which he has not run uncontested.
Sociologists hired by Rakhimov's team predict that the incumbent will collect between 40 percent and 45 percent in the first round, forcing the vote into a second round. A poll conducted by the opposition puts Rakhimov's rating at below 20 percent.
Rakhimov's strongest challengers are former LUKoil vice president Relif Safin and former Mezhprombank head Sergei Veremeenko, both of whom have repeatedly criticized Rakhimov's social and economic policies.
Safin, speaking at a press conference this week in Ufa, said, "Thousands of people are without jobs in the cities. But how about rural areas? If someone works on his own farm, he doesn't raise pigs just because he wants to -- he raises pigs to sell them. We say [people in the country] live a rich life, although there are no jobs really. But they all work like slaves, and you know who they sell their meat to ([o middlemen] for 40 rubles [a kilo] at the most, and then it's resold at the market for 65 or 70 rubles, sometimes even 80."
Veremeenko, speaking at the same press conference, criticized Rakhimov for creating privileged conditions for the Bashkir minority at the expense of Tatars and Russians.
"We have a lot of economic problems, but before we try to resolve them, we must resolve ethnic, religious, and other social problems, so that society is prepared for constructive work, so that we can say, in the near future, 'Yes, we are doing constructive work, free of ethnic discord, in peace and calm, as before. We cannot point to any nationality living in the republic -- that this or that nationality, be it Russian, or Bashkir, or any other nationality -- is in a privileged position. Only then will the people feel comfortable and prepared for solving economic issues," Veremeenko said.
Both men faced serious difficulties in registering to stand for election. Veremeenko was twice refused registration by Bashkortostan's Central Election Commission and succeeded in registering only after the Russian Central Election Commission intervened. Veremeenko, whose support base is primarily the urban population and the Russian community, has called for the complete revision of the privatization of state-owned assets in Bashkortostan, a process that is believed to have benefited primarily Rakhimov and his closest associates.
Safin, who is an ethnic Tatar, won a lawsuit in the Bashkir Supreme Court filed by Rakhimov's supporters who claimed that Safin bribed voters by organizing free concerts by his daughter, pop singer Alsu. He enjoys the support of Tatars who are alarmed by Rakhimov's policy of "Bashkirization" of the republic.
Tensions increased still more when Veremeenko and Safin discovered a cache of fake ballots at a publishing house belonging to Rakhimov's presidential property-management department. Veremeenko and Safin, along with State Duma candidate Airat Dilmokhemmetov, alerted police to the ballots after spotting them through a window on the night of 3 December.
In an interview with RFE/RL yesterday, Veremeenko said the surplus ballots were printed by order of presidential administration head Radii Khebirov. Both Veremeenko and Safin called on the Bashkir president to remove his name from the list of candidates.
They said, "having committed such a harsh falsification, the president has discredited the Russian president and Unified Russia, whose leader, [Interior Minister] Boris Gryzlov, recently openly backed Rakhimov in the elections."
They also said additional measures must be taken to protect the officially printed ballots, although they expressed fear that as many as 800,000 forged ballots might already be in circulation. The approximate number of registered voters in Bashkortostan is 2,800,000.
Rakhimov supporters have claimed the printing of the false ballots was a provocation initiated by the opposition in order to destabilize the situation and annul the election results. They said the incumbent president did not rule out that the incident was a provocation.
Interfax reported yesterday that prosecutors in Bashkortostan have opened an investigation into the incident. This follows an appeal by Russian Central Election Commission (TsIK) Chairman Alexander Veshnyakov, who told Interfax that the TsIK hopes the prosecutor's office will "actively and thoroughly" investigate the incident. He said that if suspicions are confirmed, then everyone involved in the incident will be punished with "maximum severity."
"The Moscow Times" English-language daily today cites a leading expert on Russia's regions, Nikolai Petrov of the Carnegie Moscow Center, as saying that the misuse of power in the Bashkir elections has long been "starker" than anywhere else in the country.
(Alsou Kourmacheva and Gulnara Hasanova of RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service contributed to this report.)