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Ella Pamfilova (left), chair of Russia's Central Election Commission, with Dagestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov

Reporting to Russian President Vladimir Putin last September on the conduct of the State Duma elections, Ella Pamfilova, chair of Russia's Central Election Commission, singled out Daghestan as one of the federation subjects where irregularities were most blatant and prevalent. Pamfilova elaborated on that assessment during meetings in Makhachkala two weeks ago with the republic's leaders, journalists, and representatives of various political parties, publicly warning republic head Ramazan Abdulatipov that "we do not need inflated statistics" that undermine voters' trust in the electoral process.

Daghestan was one of several Russian regions where elections to the regional parliament and local councils were held concurrently with those to the State Duma. According to official statistical data, at all three levels voter turnout was significantly higher than for Russia as a whole, and candidates representing the ruling United Russia party won with a disproportionately large percent of the vote (88.86 percent in the State Duma election compared to 47.8 percent nationwide, and 75.51 percent in the regional parliamentary ballot.)

Defeated opposition candidates and civil-society activists who monitored the voting in Daghestan dispute those figures, however. They have adduced numerous specific instances of ballot-box stuffing, the removal of ballot boxes from electoral precincts before the polls closed, and the rewriting of protocols to increase the percentage of votes cast for United Russia candidates at the expense of other political parties. Albert Esedov, who heads the Daghestan chapter of the opposition party Yabloko, told the news portal Caucasian Knot that there was barely a single polling station where the vote could have been described as even remotely free and fair.

Public Chamber member Shamil Khadulayev for his part said that precinct chairmen removed ballot boxes from polling stations in Makhachkala before the votes had even been counted.

"In its entire history, Daghestan has never witnessed anything so shameful," Kavkaz.Uzel quoted him as saying.

Oleg Melnikov, head of the antislavery movement Alternativa, who ran as an independent candidate for the State Duma from northern Daghestan, told Kavkaz.uzel he had been informed by the head of a precinct commission in the northern Kizlyar district that orders had been received from Makhachkala, the republican capital, that United Russia should receive 80 percent of the vote, with the remaining 20 percent divided among other parties. Melnikov also admitted that he encountered no obstacles when he sought at six different polling stations to cast a vote for United Russia without showing any identification.

Melnikov subsequently went to court to demand the annulment of the vote at three polling stations where procedural violations had been particularly egregious, but his appeal was rejected.

Other speakers, too, complained to Pamfilova that their complaints and appeals against malpractice were routinely ignored. Khadulayev implied that such complaints are pointless. "You file with the district court, which forwards your complaint to the Supreme Court, which sends it back to the district court," Kavkaz.uzel quoted him as saying.

Abdulatipov reportedly sought to reassure Pamfilova by downplaying the extent and gravity of the violations. He admitted that there may have been minor infringements, but insisted that the "corruption," vote-buying, and intimidation of voters that had marred previous elections have been eradicated. He concluded that he saw no reason to question the official results of the voting, according to Kavkaz.uzel.

That latter assertion is difficult to reconcile with the deployment of "heavies," as reported by Chernovik.net, to check the identity of all those who wanted to attend the open meeting with Pamfilova and refuse entry to some who might have drawn her attention to the problems they had encountered.

At a separate meeting Pamfilova held with Daghestani officials later the same day (February 16), Magomed Dibirov, the chairman of the republic's Election Commission, reportedly affirmed that of the 105 complaints submitted in connection with the vote, the commission had dismissed 78 as unfounded and forwarded the remaining 27 to the republican prosecutor's office.

While Pamifilova left no doubt that she took the cases of fraud seriously, she also reportedly explained that there were limitations on what the Central Election Commission could do to address them. She pointed out that it could not take any action regarding complaints still being heard in court, and that once district level election commissions have formally confirmed the election results, it is no longer possible to demand a recount.

She further stressed that her commission is not empowered to dismiss local-level election commission personnel implicated in falsification, although it can make recommendations in that respect. Daghestan's Central Election Commission fired 21 precinct commission heads in November, shortly after a fact-finding visit to Makhachkala by members of Pamfilova's staff, according to Kavkaz.uzel.

At the same time, Pamfilova made it quite clear that she holds the republic's leaders directly responsible for exerting pressure on local authorities to ensure overwhelming support for United Russia, in direct contravention of Putin's injunction that the voting should be, and be seen to be, fair. In that context, she sought to shield from criticism Daghestan Election Commission head Dibirov, who was reelected for a second term in December. "Much [of what he does] is undertaken not thanks to, but in spite of, [the orders he receives]," she reportedly declared, without elaborating.

The tone of Pamfilova's statements suggests that the primary objective of her visit to Makhachkala was to shame Abdulatipov personally by demonstrating that he had acted in direct violation of Putin's orders. "Does the president really need some obsequious fool to inflate [Unified Russia's] percentage [of the vote] for him?" she asked rhetorically. Whether that public dressing down was intended as a further pretext for Abdulatipov's widely anticipated dismissal is unclear.

Last week, journalist and Kremlin insider Maksim Shevchenko, whom the Daghestan Election Commission refused to register as a candidate for the State Duma elections, convened a meeting in Moscow of Daghestan's Civic Forum, at which the 80-plus participants signed a resolution requesting that Putin dismiss Abdulatipov as republic head and that his successor be elected in a popular vote, rather than selected by the republic's parliament, as is currently the case.

If, on the other hand, Pamfilova's primary concern was indeed analyzing election fraud with the aim of preventing it in future ballots and thereby restoring voters' confidence in the electoral process, then one would expect an announcement from her of plans to visit at least some of the other 22 Russian regions where she had pronounced the voting process similarly flawed.

In that context, it is worth noting that in none of the transcripts or summaries of Pamfilova's remarks in Makhachkala was she quoted as mentioning the elephant in the neighboring room. In Chechnya, United Russia polled 96.29 percent of the vote in the State Duma elections, even higher than in Daghestan. But Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov has long been above criticism.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.
Georgian Defense Minister Levan Izoria (file photo)

The spring draft got under way in Georgia this week under new guidelines intended to ensure that the country's armed forces conform as closely as possible to NATO standards -- even though it has little chance of being invited to join the alliance in the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, in line with staff cuts announced by Defense Minister Levan Izoria last fall, the ministry has dismissed a total of 2,100 personnel, most of them civilians.

One of Izoria's first moves following his appointment in August 2016 was to reverse the decision by his predecessor, Tina Khidasheli, to abolish conscription into the armed forces as of January 2017, but not other agencies, such as the Special State Protection Service and the Interior Ministry.

Under the new guidelines, the length of military service has been cut from 15 to 12 months. All conscripts, not only those assigned to the army, will undergo three months of "comprehensive" combat training. \

That combat training will continue during the following nine months, during which conscripts will "support the professional army" in its daily duties, including by participating in maneuvers.

Conscripts will be allowed weekends off and will receive "an improved social benefits package."

Financial Considerations

Izoria has admitted that the primary reason for reversing Khidasheli's abolition of conscription is financial, given that the cost of maintaining a professional force comprising only contract servicemen costs at least twice as much.

Nika Chitadze, who heads the Security and International Relations Research Institute, has predicted that the decision to bring back the draft will trigger a corresponding increase in the number of young men seeking to avoid it. That hypothesis is tenuous, however. An opinion poll conducted in late November by InterpressNews registered 69.5 percent approval.

Financial considerations were similarly behind Izoria's decision to reduce Defense Ministry personnel by some 10 percent. (According to Chief of General Staff Vladimir Chachibaia, salaries and administrative costs account for 67 percent of the ministry's budget.)

'Upside-Down Triangle'

Initially, Izoria said the downsizing would affect only civilian personnel and not the armed forces.

He noted that the firing of 10 advisers and deputy defense ministers alone would save almost 390,000 laris ($147,732) annually.

But Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili advocated a different approach, noting that "our Defense Ministry resembles an upside-down triangle, we have far more senior officers than we should have," and that Georgia's Western partners, including NATO, have for the past decade urged that the problem be addressed.

As of January 30, 2,100 Defense Ministry personnel had been dismissed, of whom 1,750 were civilians. Of the military personnel affected, 217 were officers (166 of them colonels) and 123 sergeants. Together they were paid a total of some $2 million in compensation.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

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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.

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