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Bashkortostan: Incumbent President Wins Third Term

Bashkortostan's incumbent president, Murtaza Rakhimov, an ethnic Bashkir backed by the Kremlin, won re-election for a third presidential term in a runoff ballot on 21 December.

Prague, 23 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Incumbent President Murtaza Rakhimov was re-elected president of Russia's Republic of Bashkortostan in a runoff ballot this weekend.

With more than 96 percent of the ballots counted yesterday, Rakhimov had won 78 percent, easily defeating his Russian challenger, former Mezhprombank executive Sergei Veremeenko, who took just 16 percent. Ralif Safin, a Tatar, placed third during the first round of voting on 7 December, and did not quality for the second round.

Bashkortostan will therefore continue to be governed by a member of the Bashkir minority, who account for only 22 percent of the republic's total population of 4 million.

Baryi Kinjegulov, the head of Bashkortostan's Central Election Commission, announced the runoff results yesterday. "Murtaza Gubaidullovich Rakhimov won 78.01 percent of the votes. Sergei Alekseevich Veremeenko won 15.85 percent of the votes. 4.07 percent voted 'against all,'" he said.

Throughout the election campaign, the opposition repeatedly protested what they said was unfair treatment and attempts by Rakhimov supporters to secure his re-election by illegal means.

Just days before the first-round vote, supporters or Veremeenko and Safin claimed to have located huge numbers of additional ballot forms which they claimed would be cast in Rakhimov's favor.

Bashkortostan's prosecutor-general resigned last week in connection with a criminal investigation launched into the printing company -- owned by the presidential administration -- that was responsible for printing the additional ballots. A deputy was also fired in connection with the case.

In the first round of voting, Rakhimov took 43 percent of the vote, falling short of the 50 percent-plus-one minimum needed to win outright. Veremeenko took 24 percent and Safin 23 percent. The remaining 10 percent of the vote was divided among four other candidates.

One of the candidates, Aleksandr Arinin, who took just 3 percent of the vote, told reporters earlier this month that the elections had been falsified. He added that the results should be nullified because "practically all of the leaders in the election race exceeded the maximum possible expenditures for their election funds and bribed the voters."

Rakhimov, speaking to journalists after voting in the 21 December second round, said it was "disgraceful" that a runoff ballot had to be held. He said the money could have been better spent on kindergartens or importing medical equipment.

"It's disgraceful. I think nobody needs such elections. Something should be done," he said. "For two months, people stop working, and there are too many expenses, on publishing newspapers, on publishing magazines; a huge amount is spent on TV, and nobody needs it. If we were so rich, if the country was rich -- then I would understand. We are not so rich as to spend so much money on that. It would be better to spend it on kindergartens or to buy some imported equipment for hospitals. Then I would understand. This way to spend money is not nice."

Throughout the process, the Russian leadership reaffirmed its support for Rakhimov. Some observers attributed this to the strong showing in Bashkortostan by the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party in parliamentary elections early this month.

Former Russian Railways Minister Gennadii Fadeev endorsed Rakhimov's candidacy, while Aleksandr Ryazonov, the deputy chairman of the partially state-run Gazprom energy giant, called on all Gazprom employees in Bashkortostan to cast their ballots for Rakhimov, the VolgaInform news service reported.

Veremeenko, who sought support from the Kremlin ahead of the second-round elections, is reported to have quit campaigning before runoff day in face of the Kremlin's demonstrated total backing for President Rakhimov.

The outcome of the second round means that the Republic of Bashkortostan will remain under the leadership of a Bashkir, even though Bashkirs are only the third-largest ethnic group in the republic. Russians make up 40.42 percent of the population; between 25 percent and 28 percent are Tatars. Bashkirs account for only 22 percent.

(Alsou Kourmacheva of RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service contributed to this report.)