Chechnya Boasts Turnout of 99.5%

Chechnya and other North Caucasus republics reported nearly 100 percent voter turnout and a similarly high percentage of votes going to United Russia in the State Duma elections.

One independent election observer described the results as "freakish," while the Kremlin and election officials explained that "special traditions" had motivated voters to turn out en masse.

In Chechnya, 99.5 percent of voters went to the polls Sunday, said Ismail Baikhanov, the head of the republic's elections committee.

"578,039 out of 580,918 registered voters took part in the elections," he said, Interfax reported.

United Russia received 99.36 percent of the vote.

This was the highest vote for United Russia in the country, where overall turnout was 63 percent, and about 64 percent of votes were cast for the party. Nationwide turnout was 56 percent in the last Duma elections, in 2003.

Other Caucasus republics also reported high figures, with turnout of 98.3 percent in Ingushetia, 97 percent in Kabardino-Balkaria and 94 percent in Karachayevo-Cherkessia, and a similar percentage of people voting for United Russia. In Dagestan, turnout was about 92 percent, with 89 percent supporting United Russia.

North Ossetia seemed the odd one out, with a turnout of just 58 percent, Interfax reported.

The results startled some Western observers. Michael Collins, a U.S. television producer who came as an independent observer, told journalists in the Central Elections Commission that even an 80 percent turnout was impossible in a democracy, not to mention a show of 80 percent support for a single party.

"Eighty percent? It's unheard of in the United States," he said.

He said the results would be considered "something bizarre, something freakish" in the United States. "It is not a democracy," he said.

Lilia Shibanova, the head of Golos, the only independent Russian vote-monitoring group, said turnouts of this size were not credible and an indication of large-scale fraud. She said such high numbers could not be achieved even under pressure from the authorities. "They only show that electoral laws were violated," Shibanova said by telephone.

But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the figures were in line with North Caucasus tradition.

"It does not mean that everybody voted but nearly everybody," he said, when asked whether it was possible to achieve a turnout of 99 percent.

In fact, he said, the results show "the great respect of the people ... for President Putin and the republics' leadership."

Peskov said strong support for the authorities was a unique regional tradition that "we have to respect."

He also said United Russia and local leaders had been "quite proactive" ahead of the vote.

His words were echoed by Yusup Kostoyev, a member of Ingushetia's elections committee. "Our turnout has always been higher than in the rest of the country," he said by telephone.

He said a high turnout was natural because of the mountainous republic's rural traditions. "We have no big cities, and in the villages it is considered everybody's duty to vote," he said.

He also stressed that every effort was made to get out the vote, including a drive to bring ballots to voters hospitalized in intensive care wards.

Kostoyev said this did not mean that the Ingush were docile. "We mountaineers retain our free will," he said.

Oleg Orlov, head of the Memorial human rights organization, who was in Chechnya and Ingushetia for a week through Friday, said the turnout results were credible. But he argued that the reasons were rooted more in unfairness than tradition.

"Just look at Chechen TV programs last week," he said. "They showed Ramzan Kadyrov all the time. There was not one program without him."

United Russia was the only party that received airtime, he said. Kadyrov, Chechnya's president, headed the party's local list.

Orlov said doctors, teachers and other state-paid workers had faced pressure to vote. Also, he said, there was fierce competition among rural communities. "No village can afford to trail in the statistics," he said.

Staff Writer Natalya Krainova contributed to this report.