Tiny District Looks to Keep Its Perfect Record

MTPolling Station No. 229 sitting deserted in Khabez on Sunday afternoon.
KHABEZ, Karachayevo-Cherkessia -- The tiny district of Khabez in the North Caucasus would barely merit a mention were it not for one rather interesting fact.

In the recent State Duma elections, every one of its 18,282 registered voters turned out to cast a ballot, and every single one of them checked the box for the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, according to official results.

It looked Sunday like the district in the republic of Karachayevo-Cherkessia would be hard-pressed to pull off a similar feat in the presidential election.

The streets of the district's main town, Khabez, nestled in a valley about 40 kilometers from the regional capital, Cherkessk, were nearly deserted Sunday afternoon.

"You've arrived at a quiet time. You should have seen the lines this morning," said Mukhadin Mazukabzov, the election official in charge of Polling Station No. 229.

He said 1,457 out of the 2,077 voters registered at the station had cast ballots by 3 p.m. That represented roughly 70 percent of the voters.

"Most of the others will come between 5 and 6," Mazukabzov said.

Over a 30-minute stretch in the afternoon, only one person came in to vote.

It was not much different at another polling station across town. By 4 p.m., 1,289 out of its 2,107 registered voters had passed through the doors, election officials said. Two voters left as a reporter entered. Nobody came in for the next half hour.

Turnout is extremely important in the North Caucasus because it enables local leaders to show Moscow that they have the troubled region under control, a local journalist explained.

The town's mayor, Sultan Turashchev, predicted that turnout would be high and that Dmitry Medvedev, President Vladimir Putin's preferred successor, would win the most votes.

"There is always a high turnout in our region," he said. Karachayevo-Cherkessia posted 93 percent turnout in the Duma elections on Dec. 2.

The mayor praised Putin's eight years in office.

"Life has gotten better. Pensions have risen, and wages are higher. There is no crime. Things have improved in every respect," he said.

This town has seen a transformation in recent years, thanks in part to the efforts of Mikhail Gutseriyev, the disgraced former owner of the Russneft oil company, and Nazir Khapsirokov, who rose through the ranks of the Prosecutor General's Office to become its household directorate chief before leaving for a post in the presidential administration.

Catrina Stewart / MT
Khabez's park is named in honor of Gutseriyev, Russneft's former owner.
A new cultural center -- for now Polling Station No. 229 -- sits uneasily alongside ramshackle houses, while across the main street is a new park named in Gutseriyev's honor. The residents have also benefited from a new day-care center and medical facilities. Women, meanwhile, are paid 10,000 rubles ($420) for each newborn, ensuring the highest birth rate in the republic.

In a local store, Lena, the shopkeeper, laughed when told of the 100 percent turnout for the Duma elections. But, she said with a smile, "If they say it was 100 percent, then it must have been 100 percent." She would not say whom she had voted for Sunday.

A customer in the shop said he had not voted at all. "No, of course I didn't vote. What's the point? They have already chosen the president," he said, refusing to give his name. "If these elections were fair and free, then why didn't Medvedev ... take part in any debates?

"But if I had voted," he added, "I would have chosen Medvedev."

Outside, three elderly men were passing the time. All three said they had supported the Communist candidate, Gennady Zyuganov.

"Medvedev's an idiot. And so was Putin, and so was Yeltsin. They all stole from us. I have never seen anything good in this country," said Mukhadin Bykov, one of the elderly residents. "It is difficult to live in these times."

While the men were speaking, a policeman walked over and took down the details of the car used by this reporter, a British citizen. The presence of a foreign reporter also seemed to alarm local Federal Security Service officials. Earlier in Cherkessk, two FSB representatives questioned this reporter at length in the hotel lobby about the purpose of the visit, who had been interviewed and what had been discussed.

Khabez was not the only district to report high turnout and support for United Russia in the Duma elections. Several towns in the republic of Mordovia initially reported that 104 percent to 109 percent of all votes had been cast for United Russia, according to the Communist Party's local branch.

Meanwhile, the Communist Party's head office in Cherkessk was a hub of activity, but the mood was gloomy. Party officials said the republic's turnout during the Duma elections had been closer to 40 percent and predicted that Sunday's would be similar.

Ahmed Abazov, the local representative for the liberal Yabloko party, which did not field a candidate for the presidential election, sounded tired and uninterested on the eve of the election. "Is it tomorrow? I'd forgotten." He said he would not vote.