Thursday, March 5, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Elections in North Caucasus Highlight ‘Institutional Weakness,’ of Russian State, Moscow Expert Says

Paul Goble

Champaign, March 5 – Last weekend’s elections for local and republic offices in the republics of the North Caucasus highlight “the institutional weakness” of the Russian state and point to more rather than less instability across that region, according to Moscow’s most thoughtful commentator on ethnic politics there.
In an essay posted online yesterday, Sergey Markedonov argues that both the fall-off in support for the pro-Moscow United Russia Party across the board in elections there and the specific features of the poll in several of the republics should be a wake-up call for officials at all levels (
And that is because, he argues, a careful analysis of what lies behind the carefully constructed “façade” of a Kremlin victory offers “numerous facts which do not fit into the Procrustean bed which is labeled ‘the stabilization of the Caucasus,’ and the sooner the powers that be at all levels pay attention to this, the better it will be for all concerned.”
Markedonov, who has written more than anyone else on electoral politics in the North Caucasus, begins his article by noting that “in the absence of public politics in the country, election campaigns are a competition not of programs and candidates but of administrative resources.” But that very reality can make outcomes even more important for the regime.
On March 1, the Moscow analyst points out, there were elections to various local and republic bodies in Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Adygeya, the Prigorodny rayon of North Ossetia, and Daghestan. And he notes that as expected United Russia won the largest percentages across the board.
But behind that “façade” were some more interesting realities for the region as a whole On the one hand, United Russia won a smaller percentage of the vote even though a smaller percentage of the electorate participated than in the elections of a year ago, and on the other hand, other parties and even non-party candidates won seats.
What that suggests, Markedonov says, is that “people voted [in the presidential and parliamentary elections] not for programs and not for ideas” but for attractive individuals. “But where is the guarantee,” Markedonov asks rhetorically, “that under crisis conditions, the attractive personalities will be as attractive as they were?”
That has to be a matter of concern for the authorities in Moscow, but an even closer reading of what happened in the North Caucasus last weekend gives even greater cause for concern, he suggests.
In Daghestan, he points out, it is noteworthy that participation in Untsukul rayon was only 20.9 percent, far lower than reported a year ago and striking because that is the region where for eight month from December 2007 to August 2008, the Russian authorities conducted a counter-terrorist operation.
“In the absence of relevant sociological data, it is difficult to judge definitively about the motivation” of those who did not take part, he said. “But it isn’t necessary to be a major sociologist to understand that a lack of trust toward those in power has arisen among the residents of that district.”
And the reason for this, Markedonov insists, is “not only the growth of Islamist attitudes and dissatisfaction with the powers that be but also an insufficient involvement of the powers that be, including those at the federal level with the problems of the district,” something that people there clearly feel.
And that lack of trust is even more clearly displayed by the way in which the elections were carried out in the Prigorodny district. That region, which many Ingush believe must be returned from North Ossetia, did not have a single resident of Ingush nationality as a candidate. Indeed, “elections did not take place in those villages where Ingush live.”
In that way, Markedonov says, “apartheid in that disputed region continues, something that cannot be considered a good basis for the regulation of that long drawn-out conflict.” Indeed, the management of the political process in this way beyond question guarantees more hostility and more conflicts in the future.
Consequently, while the Moscow media and others may be celebrating United Russia’s achievement in the recent voting, the actual outcomes in the North Caucasus underscore a different reality: that region is united only by the large number of problems that keep it very much divided not only within itself but increasingly from Russia as well.

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