|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Chechnya’s rigged election
OCTOBER’S ELECTION of a new president for the war-torn Caucasian republic of Chechnya was record breaking in more ways than one. Of the original list of five serious candidates, only one made it through to polling day. The others were either disqualified by the electoral commission or were bought off with senior jobs in the Kremlin.
So it was little surprise when the results showed an 81% vote in favour of the candidate nominated by Moscow – Akhmat Kadyrov. Even more substantive was the turnout of 85%! Particularly remarkable was the fact that so many people managed to cast their votes without apparently even turning up at the polling stations. According to observers from the human rights group Helsinki Watch, the capital city of Grozny was deserted on polling day as residents had fled, fearing a wave of terrorist attacks to undermine the election.
One of these observers went to the normally crowded central market place, which she found practically empty. When she asked where all the people were, she was told: ‘What people? They all left town. It’s the elections you know. Everyone’s afraid of a terrorist act, all the papers and TV are talking about 5 October being a bad day’. When she asked the same person whether he was going to vote, he replied: ‘Vote? What for? It’s already been decided. The president has already been chosen. Only not by us but by Moscow’. With the population itself proving reluctant to participate in the voting farce, other ‘electors’ had to be found. Federal troops serving in the republic were registered and made up over 10% of the electoral roll.
As it was clear that the election was not going to be free and fair, many international observers, including OBSE representatives, simply boycotted the poll. Those who were present did so not to find irregularities but to try and cover them up. Some tried very hard not to see what was going on for fear of disrupting the friendly relationships between Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and the West. So much so that some of the pro-Kremlin press were talking of the elections marking a new phase in Russian/Western relations in which the ‘recognition of the legality and legitimacy of the Chechen election laid the basis for ending the continual insinuations about the rights of Aslan Maskhadov’. Maskhadov was the president elected in the last election, and has now been declared persona non grata by the Kremlin.
The elections were rigged. Not just by packing the ballot boxes but by instilling fear in the opposition. Helsinki Watch asked an observer, who was supposed to be representing one of the opposition candidates at the polling stations, whether there were any irregularities: ‘There are’, said the woman quietly shaking her head. ‘You know as well as I do’. What irregularities? ‘We can’t say or we’ll have trouble. You are just a visitor who will go home tomorrow but we have to live here. If I tell you now, tomorrow they’ll tear my head off!’
This is an indication of the climate of fear that surrounded the election, fear created by the Kremlin and, in particular, Kadyrov. In the late 1980s he established the first Islamic institute in Chechnya and then joined the Chechen side in the first war against Russia in 1993. Like the other commanders, he was little more than a warlord, establishing his own little army of loyal fighters. As one of the leaders of Islam in the republic he declared jihad on the Russian army. He was later elected mufti, the main advisor on Koranic law, of Chechnya. Only at the beginning of the second war, which was started as part of the campaign to get Putin elected president, Kadyrov fell out with Maskhadov and the other warlords and ended up siding with the Kremlin.
Now Kadyrov is running a regime of terror within Chechnya, in which his former fighters are running protection rackets and ensuring that his political opponents keep their heads down. The Moscow Nezavisimaya paper wrote: ‘His personal guards are no longer afraid of the federal troops, and behind their backs people call them ‘death squads’. It’s no secret that the other warlords are getting worried about the strengthening of the Kadyrov clan’.
One of the leading mullahs complains that Kadyrov is no more than a placeman for the armed forces. Kadyrov’s children, he says, wave around dollars from Putin at weddings and Kadyrov himself spends so long in Moscow he will no longer be a mullah but a priest. But, he warns, the Russians could soon regret backing Kadyrov as he will provoke a real war. Indeed, despite ‘winning’ the election, a recent gathering of all Chechnya’s mullahs and Islamic leaders passed a vote of no confidence in him.
These incidents give the lie to the claims by the Russian leadership that things have settled down in the republic. The Russian deputy minister of the interior claimed just before the election that ‘there is practically no large-scale fighting or bands that could in any way affect the situation in the republic’. Despite these assurances, the next day six more federal troops were killed in an assault. Barely a day goes by without a bomb attack or a firefight either within the republic or in one of the nearby regions.
The Russian government boasts that an amnesty has been declared and fighters should give up arms. It claims that refugees are returning to the republic. As it happens, 400 people have now been amnestied: 140 from the Chechen side, with the remainder being Russian troops who have committed various crimes! Refugees currently living in other republics in tented towns are also extremely reluctant to return. When a government delegation visited one of the refugee camps just before the election to discuss conditions for returning, they met with a very hostile response. Hardly surprising given the conditions in Grozny. A reporter recently described how one family living in the city survives: ‘When 14-year-old Asya returns from school she ducks under a sign warning of mines, steps through a broken doorway and climbs a dark staircase past empty apartments where wind blows through the scattered walls’. Her mother complains that Asya has been losing her hair because of the tension of life in a war-zone. Her younger brother has an eye ailment and her sister is going deaf from the constant sound of explosions. One NGO reports that over 8,000 people have been killed by mines in the past three years.
It is difficult to see a way out of this catastrophic situation. So many people have been killed or displaced, forced to become refugees in other republics, that it is no longer possible even to assess what the wishes are of Chechens themselves. Nevertheless, they must have the right to self-determination. However, as the experience of life in the republic between the two wars showed, even the de facto independence of those days turned into a nightmare. The Chechen warlords established their own regime and divided up the republic’s wealth and assets between themselves.
The Russian government used the little republic as a pawn in its struggle to dominate the oil-rich Caucasian region. Under Stalinism, Chechens were deprived of even basic national rights, now that capitalism has been restored in the region, extreme poverty and war have compounded their difficulties. Freedom from military repression, dictatorship and economic depravation can only be guaranteed if the struggle for the rights of refugees, for democratic and national rights in Chechnya, is linked with the struggle for the socialist transformation of society in the other Caucasian republics and in Russia itself. This would be based on the nationalisation of oil and other natural resources under democratic workers’ control and management in a confederation of genuine workers’ states in the Caucasus.