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June 6th 2003 · Prague Watchdog / Musa Tumsoyev · PRINTER FRIENDLY FORMAT · E-MAIL THIS · ALSO AVAILABLE IN: RUSSIAN 

Chechnya: From a pseudoreferendum to pseudoelections

Musa Tumsoyev, special to Prague Watchdog

The results of the March referendum on the draft Chechen constitution were pre-determined long before even the mere idea of a referendum was approved by Kremlin’s spin doctors. Its outcome was important for the Russian authorities, and avidly supported by local officials; the percentage of voters, and those who voted for the three referendum questions, surpassed all expectations. And both Russia and Western Europe recalled the “Brezhnev statistics” in election campaigns.

Western democracies, as well as major international and human rights organizations refused to send representatives to what they considered would be a political show. Therefore, most election observers came from less democratic countries.

Nevertheless, the Russian government tried putting a positive spin on this democratic procedure as the referendum and upcoming Chechen presidential and parliamentary elections represent significant tactical victories for the Kremlin. And now with Russia's Chechnya moving from "referendum" to "elections", the solution of the Russian-Chechen conflict has been put on hold.

Constitutional games

Chechnya has two constitutions at present----neither one guaranteeing safety for its citizens. The constitution of the Chechen Republic (later known as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria) adopted in 1992 ensured their status as a sovereign country and had significant importance for Chechens. But the Constitution adopted in March of this year guarantees a different status. Based on results of the referendum, President Putin said, “We have resolved the last serious problem related to Russia’s territorial integrity.” The Chechen nation, however, never had any ambitions of resolving the issue of Russia's territorial integrity.

Meanwhile, an effort is being made to use the constitution of Russia's Chechen Republic as an instrument for solving global political issues that in no way relate to the conflict, but it is needed to demonstrate positive results of Putin's presidentcy. The constitution of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria was in turn necessary to acknowledge the legitimacy of Aslan Maskhadov’s presidency. This political game playing seems to be a form of power struggle between the ruling and opposition groups and has nothing to do with Chechen citizens, who were supposed to approve the constitution and abide by it.

In a country where international rules of law are non-existent, and the Russian authorities are incapable of ensuring the validity of constitutional norms within their own territory, both Chechen constitutions seem to have little political value.

The recently passed constitution assumes there will be one person who will be president of the Chechen people. Once this document was enacted, some people began saying that Akhmad Kadyrov, head of the Moscow-backed administration in Chechnya, was the man who should wield presidential power. The enactment of the constitution was in many ways connected to ending the war that began on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s presidency and enabled his power. The timing of different election campaigns in Chechnya was very important, as it would show that Putin had resolved an issue that his predecessors were unable to sort out. At the same time, the process of legalizing the new legitimate power in Chechnya had to last until the next Russian presidential election.

The order of events is as follows: (1) adoption of the constitution; (2) presidential election; (3) signing the Rights and Powers Agreement; and (4) parliamentary election. Most likely the Chechen presidential election will be simultaneous with the Russian State Duma, and the Chechen parliamentary election with the Russian presidential one. The Russian authorities prefer these dates because:


- winter and spring are considered the least active months of Chechen resistance
- with election campaigns underway throughout the Russian territory, interest in regional issues decreases
- inviting international observers to take part in the Russian national elections helps dampen criticism about the manner in which regional election campaigns are conducted
- signing various agreements on the division of rights and powers between the federal and regional authorities should take place before the Russian presidential elections; thus it is necessary to elect a Chechen president by the end of this year.

Since the recently adopted Chechen constitution was unable to resolve the Russian-Chechen conflict, it will no doubt be unable to determine the republic’s political future as well. However, this may not be its task anyway; it may well be the best way of showing that the situation in Chechnya is getting back to normal, and also provides a good basis for the presidential election.

An election without choices

As a democratic form of displaying the will of the people, a referendum offers them a choice----in which direction should the given country develop. President Putin admitted that he is solving the problem of Russia’s territorial integrity---- but in this case the question in the referendum should be quite simple and unambiguous, “Do you think Chechnya should be part of Russia?”

Ruslan Khasbulatov was right when he said, “everyone got stymied by the phrase about Russia’s territorial integrity and they cannot understand that it is not integrity that is the issue, it is the war, which enriched special groups in Russia and Chechnya.” Only after Chechnya’s political status is clarified can serious discussions begin about the republic’s future.

The next stage of political “special measures” is the election of the Chechen President, which excludes most well known Chechen officials. The Russian administration naively assumes that the referendum invalidated the legitimacy of Maskhadov´s presidency. But as far as the Chechen rebels are concerned, he will always remain their president. Thus the Kremlin not only deprives Maskhadov and his colleagues of helping to find a peaceful solution to the Russian-Chechen conflict, but inadvertently spurs groups on to continue fighting. Without allowing Chechens to choose their own method of development, the referendum boosts Russia's dominance over individual territories.

The upcoming presidential election will exclude all candidates and voters who side with the rebels and/or criticize Russian authorities in Chechnya, i.e. the peaceful opposition. This will, unfortunately, eliminate many people who have some influence in Chechen society.

For example, regarding Ruslan Khasbulatov running for president, he should not take part in an election whose laws were adopted in a pseudo-referendum. Moreover, it is impossible to hold a democratic election while the country is under military control.

By excluding certain candidates, the election deprives the population the right of choice. And the citizens taking part in this political show have a right to choose between a larger and lesser evil, even without knowing which is more dangerous.

The choice was made

It is obvious that the Chechen President will be a man who will be completely reliant on the federal government, indicating that the country will not be run properly nor even become stabilized. But the Kremlin does not want a strong leader who, upon taking office and backed by the people of Chechnya, would immediately demand rights and controls that could limit the Russian military and other powers.

The new president will be responsible for assuring that all the promises Moscow made to the Chechens will be kept. Prior to the referendum, one thousand Russian soldiers were either replaced or withdrawn; and now a further withdrawal of about 100,000 depends on those supporting the current president, not on statements made by officials who promised to reduce federal checkpoints but increased them instead.

Chechens lack a pro-Russian consolidating figure. Bets are being made as to whom will best handle the federal officials without disrupting the Russian command. The Kremlin already made its choice, but his name has not been revealed. And there is no certainty that it will be the current head of the Moscow-backed Chechen administration.

A candidate for power

The establishment of the Russian-backed administration in Chechnya has raised many questions from the very beginning, which is not all that surprising. During the war the true power in the republic could only be in the hands of Russian generals. But President Putin refused to introduce presidential or federal rule in the republic; he bet on Kadyrov and created the administration that is now led by him.

Nikolai Koshman, a Deputy Prime Minister and Special Representative of the Russian Federation in the Chechen Republic, vehemently protested his removal from office; and the transfer of power from Koshman to Kadyrov evoked a scandal that prompted mutual allegations of financial misconduct.

Meanwhile, Beslan Gantamirov vociferously opposed this choice as well, and by so doing, rose to become Kadyrov’s potential rival. Considering all that transpired during this initial period, the administration had no choice but to solely focus on resolving this conflict.

And solve it they did. Since district administrators were tightly controlled (the more obstinate ones were discharged), local pro-Russian politicos were promised a “great” future----and then were quickly forgotten. Needless to say, this created an even stronger opposition to Kadyrov. However, the decisive factor in keeping him in office was President Putin, whose determination in this was decisive.

Once appointed, Kadyrov worked feverishly in trying to transform his administration into the rightful government of Chechnya able to exercise independent executive power and control all monies received from the federal budget. But his proposals were met with caution and distrust, which manifested itself in non-Chechens coming from outside the republic and being repeatedly appointed as his deputies and prime ministers of the administration.

This new administration corresponded with building Russia's “vertical power base”----an intermediate level between the federal center and regional representatives who were fully empowered by Putin. This meant that Chechnya's administration would be under the control of not only the central power, but the Southern Federal Region as well. What further exacerbated the situation was appointing General Viktor Kazantsev as head of the federal region. He had previously been in command of military operations in Chechnya and strongly distrusted all Chechen leaders who were linked to the army’s defeat in the Russian-Chechen conflict.

As Putin's presidential term draws to a close, the Kremlin is rushing to establish civil institutions in Chechnya and foster elections that would enable changing the present use of war terminology (military operations, counter-terrorist operation, military command posts, etc.) into words of peace (president, parliament, budget, municipality, etc). Kadyrov’s role appears to be wholly suited for this as “yesterday’s fighter for independence“ is busily engaged in seeing that Chechnya becomes a part of the Russian Federation.

Not only did Kadyrov become absorbed with trying to stabilize Russian statehood in Chechnya, but he also created his own “army,” one that could compete with other non-controlled armed units operating in the republic. Such goings-on obviously intensified the federal officials distrust of him, as his primary role was to enwrap "the Russian idea" around Chechens and not set about forming special interest groups.

Kadyrov managed to successfully consolidate his personal power during his three-year tenure, even though his administration has seen three prime ministers come and go (probably because he didn’t know how to form meaningful relationships with them). The removal of Mikhail Babich was especially shameful. Although he tried playing “according to the rules,” Babich‘s fatal flaw was that instead of taking into account the Chechen mentality, he chose the wrong time to wage a fight. And many more similar examples can be cited about Kadyrov‘s woeful inability to govern.

Yet there have been no signs of his disloyalty towards the Kremlin; in fact, Kadyrov always went to great lengths to stress his "close relationship" with Putin. And, ultimately, recurrent meetings with the President are critical, especially when Kremlin-appointed candidates are selected for Chechnya.

Kadyrov's confidence that he will be chosen by the Russian President's administration to become Chechnya's President, leads to his making statements that would help raise support for him among the population. (Remarks like withdrawing a large part of Russian troops who mistreat and kidnap people in Chechnya.) However, allegations of Chechen leaders that the Russian military is not a stabilizing factor but a source of violence requires personal courage and raises their own popularity.

Chechens today pay scant attention to elections----they are more concerned with getting compensated for their lost homes (when payments will be received and how much they‘ll get) and don’t really care who gives it to them. Federal officials stated that the sum would be 240,000 roubles and that 25 billion was to be set aside for this purpose, causing Kadyrov to announce that citizens who lost their homes as a result of two military campaigns should receive at least 400,000 to 450,000 roubles. Naturally this is what Chechens want to hear and so are willing to support such initiatives. However, this doesn‘t mean that come election day all these people will rush out to vote. Nor does it mean that everyone who deserves compensation will receive it; and those who do, may well get a much lesser amount.

Various reports about changing the dates for the Chechen presidential and parliamentary elections (so as not to coincide with Russia's State Duma and presidential elections) caught Kadyrov‘‘s attention----he has already begun his pre-election campaign. (Although the Kremlin might well decide on another candidate.) And the argument in favor of speeding up elections is debatable----equal conditions for all candidates are not guaranteed; nor is it truly possible to hold democratic elections in a country that is under military control.

Yet the election date-changes are not advantageous for Kadyrov’s political ambitions. On the other hand, postponement would allow the present administration to control substantial financial funds; funds intended to revive the economy and social services in the republic, plus compensate people for their lost homes and property. Receiving additional revenue to supplement the resources they already have might allow Kadyrov‘s political interest group to play an independent role in these matters. Once the Kremlin becomes occupied with elections and political scandals, corruption and financial misdeeds will have to take a back seat. This would enable the local power elite to build a stronger economic base and help them pursue their own political goals. However, the results of these efforts are far from certain.

But what is certain is the Kremlin‘s knowing what type of leader the republic needs, even though it will not say who that man might be. Nevertheless, the Russians are prepared to finance these elections to achieve a sort of “special cloning” of a Chechen president. Selection of candidates is going on all over Russia, and only future developments will reveal whether Moscow will opt for those officials who have already submitted their applications. This approach, however, totally ignores the election process itself.

Candidates for candidates

Many pro-Russian Chechens have become candidates in the upcoming election only because they want to be remembered at some future date as having “thrown their hat in the ring.” But it really is pointless to talk about presidential choices when a Kremlin handpicked protégé is in the running, although it is worth noting the names that are being mentioned for this impending election.

At the onset of the present military campaign, Gantamirov expressed serious interest in becoming administrative head of Chechnya. His first encounter with Kadyrov began with their sizing one another up, although eventually they both showed an interest in working together. Over the past few years, Gantamirov managed not only to launch his own newspapers and a television station, but to gain control over other mass media as well. So it will be interesting to see whom he will insist that the media support. It is unlikely, however, that he will run without the Kremlin’s approval, and without any assurance that he stands a good chance of winning. Unlike other candidates, he is not about to take any risks.

Meanwhile Aslanbek Aslakhanov, the inadvertently appointed member of parliament, also happens to be a candidate. But his win could also be a fluke as he has not developed any special initiatives of his own and so doesn’t appear to be a political heavyweight. Although his “peacemaking“ activities raised people’s hopes, they have not found a receptive ear in the Kremlin.

Nevertheless, Aslakhanov’s loyalty lies with the Kremlin, who led him to believe they would support his bid for the presidency. With Moscow’s approval, he became active in organizing several Chechen congress’s last fall, which provided a jump-start on his candidacy. However, Kadyrov foiled his lead by quickly undertaking his own congress at Gudermes; and in so doing, he made it obvious which of them could rely on the Kremlin’s support. And since it also clearly showed that Aslakhanov might not be the favorite front runner, he had no choice but to reconcile with Kadyrov. In any event, it seems that the guarantee of a Federal Parliament seat means more to Aslakhanov than being president of Chechnya.

Another Kadyrov's opponent and certain to enter the presidential race is Malik Saidulayev, who has long dreamed of becoming the head of the republic. Yet in a nominal way he is, since he heads the Gossovet of Chechnya. (Although no one knows what governing body this is.) His hopes spring from having close ties to President Putin. Many interpreted the appearance of Madame Putin at the Chechen dance ensemble Lovzar, sponsored by Saidulayev, as increasing his chances. Yet he won’t be risking anything by his candidacy; the most important thing for him is to demonstrate loyalty.

The president of the Moscow Industrial Bank, Arsamakov, is viewed as being a most important Chechen businessman. At one time it was believed he would become Prime Minister in Kadyrov´s administration, with a goal of one-day becoming president. But so far his candidacy has not been announced. Perhaps he is waiting to be appointed Prime Minister of Chechnya.

There were rumors recently that the Kremlin may support Sultygov, Putin's special human rights representative in Chechnya. Sultygov's role in helping with the referendum and organizing the political process in Chechnya is undeniable and highly valued by the Kremlin; but so far he has not exerted any effort in defending the rights of Chechens. Thus it is unlikely that Sultygov will be a presidential candidate; he will more than likely become a member of the federal government next year.

Among the many hopefuls we could also include a Chechen from St. Petersburg, or any member of the intelligence agencies. If their various qualities could all be rolled into one man, he would probably be the ideal candidate. Evidently there is nothing to stop anyone from “throwing his hat in the ring.”


Musa Tumsoyev is a regular contributor to Prague Watchdog.

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