A scandal-marred contest intended to celebrate Russia's diversity has hit a new low as Chechnya's leader pulled his republic's entry out of the running, implying that Russian mobile-phone operators fiddled the contest to prevent Chechnya from winning.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov complained of "blatant fraud," sparking the latest round of bickering in a competition that has been marred by ethnic tension and accusations of foul play.
The nationwide "Russia 10" contest aims to select a symbol for the Russian Federation from a roster of architectural and geographic landmarks across Russia's nine time zones. Russian citizens voted online or by text message.
But the quest for a national symbol took a strange turn almost as soon as the second round of voting went live in June, when the glittering central mosque in Grozny, the Chechen capital twice decimated by Russian troops, shot to the top of the national rankings.
Since then, the Heart of Chechnya Mosque mostly led the pack by a distance, apparently garnering millions of votes, much to the consternation of right-wing Russians, many of whom are hostile to the North Caucasus.
Grozny's mosque -- sometimes touted as the largest in Europe -- looked a hot favorite. But as the second round of voting came to an end on August 30, the Chechen mosque was beaten at the finish by the Kolomensky Kremlin, which surged in front at the 11th hour.
It is unclear how the entries marshaled such colossal support; they received 38.6 million and 38.2 million votes apiece, while a sculpture park in the Penza region trailed in third with 1.6 million.
But Kadyrov had little doubt as to why Chechnya finished second -- "blatant fraud." Writing on his Instagram page
, the Chechen strongman, not known to be a stickler for clean elections, implied that the Megaphone and Beeline mobile-phone operators didn't register Chechen texts in the final hours of voting, allowing the Kolomensky Kremlin to take the lead.
"Tens and hundreds of thousands of Chechen residents in mosques, on the squares of cities and villages are giving their votes to the Heart of Chechnya. But from 19:00 these votes are not being counted!" he wrote late on August 27.
"Megaphone and Beeline are taking the money, but then comes a response about apparent problems and an overload. In response to our questions company representatives said that our votes will definitely be counted, and that the problems arose because of an overload of the server. But even on August 23 we sent over 4 million votes and there weren't any problems," he added.
"Therefore we told them that this is nothing but blatant fraud. Moreover, we do not rule out that this is an artificial blockade with the aim of not allowing the Heart of Chechnya to take first place."
He promised to appeal to the federal Investigative Committee and the Prosecutor-General's Office.
Despite Kadyrov's indignant reaction, there were few implications for the second-place finish, as the top 30 entries pass through into a third and final round of the competition, which concludes at the end of September. Votes are reset to zero after the second round.
Kadyrov on August 30 then removed the mosque from the competition altogether. "The Heart of Chechnya Mosque is a recognized symbol, this does not require evidence, but we do not intend to participate in a show," Kadyrov was quoted by Interfax
He has since demanded that the money spent on the competition be returned to the people, RIA Novosti reported
. To give an idea of the sums involved, each text vote costs a maximum of 3.56 rubles. If half of the total 145.98 million votes were cast via text at this rate, then a total of 258.4 million rubles ($7.8 million) was spent on text votes across the country.
-- Tom Balmforth