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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechens Give a Big 'Yes' for Stability

APA Russian soldier taking position behind an APC in downtown Grozny on Monday.
GROZNY -- Turning out in record numbers, Chechens gave overwhelming support for a new constitution that the Kremlin hopes will enhance stability to Chechnya, according to preliminary results released Monday night.

With ballots from 292 of the republic's 418 polling stations counted, 96.1 percent were in favor of the constitution confirming Chechnya's status as part of Russia, the Central Election Commission said on its web site. Only 2.6 percent voted "no."

A similarly large number of voters on Sunday approved measures paving the way for presidential and parliamentary elections, the commission said.

Turnout was 85 percent.

President Vladimir Putin said the results "surpassed all expectations" and showed the rebels have no popular support.

"All who have not laid down arms are now fighting not only for their false ideals but also against their own people," Putin said at a regular Cabinet meeting.

"The Chechen people have done this in a direct and very democratic way," he said.

Observers and analysts said, however, that Moscow has a history of rigging elections in Chechnya and that the preliminary numbers appeared to be too good to be true.

An informal poll of 50 Grozny residents on Monday found that Chechens are split about the credibility of the figures. But they said they were more concerned about peace than vote-rigging.

"The reported turnout of 85 percent is farfetched," said Ruslan Lalayev, a journalist at Grozny's Stolitsa-Plus newspaper. "When I went to a polling station at Grozny's School No. 7 in the afternoon, there were just a few people there."

Ruslan Badalov, head of the pro-rebel Chechen Salvation Committee, said the numbers were inflated and that most of Chechnya's 540,000 eligible voters had boycotted the referendum.

However, Zarema Aubova, an official in the education department at Grozny's City Hall, insisted Monday that the figures appeared to be accurate.

"You could see lines of voters at the polling stations," she said.

The large turnout and huge number of ballots marked "yes" are remarkable for a vote in Russia, said Oleg Orlov, head of the Memorial human rights group.

"What happened in Chechnya can be explained in two ways only: Either the ballot boxes were illegally stuffed with forged ballots or Chechens felt they had no choice but to vote in favor of the constitution," Orlov said.

"In any case, there was no free vote in Chechnya," he said.

No complaints of voting violations were reported Sunday or Monday.

A delegation of observers from the Commonwealth of Independent States declared the vote valid Monday.

"The authorities of the Russian Federation and the Chechen republic gave Chechen citizens the opportunity to participate in a free and independent vote," the observers said in a statement carried by Interfax.

European countries are waiting to receive a report from observers with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, officials at OSCE headquarters in Vienna, Austria, and at the European Commission's Russia office said Monday.

The findings will not be disclosed for at least several days, an OSCE spokesman said.

Hrair Balian, head of the OSCE mission to Chechnya, said Sunday that "the organization and conduct of the referendum were not without shortcomings."

Chechnya had a history of rigged elections in the 1990s, and this raises doubts about Sunday's referendum, said Vladimir Pribylovsky, political analyst with the Panorama think tank.

In 1995, during the first 1994-96 Chechen war, the pro-Kremlin Our Home Is Russia party garnered 48 percent of the Chechen vote in parliamentary elections -- more votes than in any other region. A year later, President Boris Yeltsin, who ordered the military campaign, won 73 percent of the Chechen vote in a run-off with Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov.

Putin won half of the Chechen vote in the presidential election in March 2000 -- despite his tough talk about Chechnya and his role in the launch of the second military campaign six months earlier. The second-place presidential candidate, Zyuganov, got 11 percent.

Voter turnout tends to fall between 30 percent and 40 percent during regional elections. When a simple majority is required -- as in Sunday's referendum -- winning candidates rarely secure more than 50 percent to 60 percent of the vote. An unusual exception came last year when incumbent Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleyev won nearly 94 percent of the vote.

Several Chechens interviewed Monday said that regardless of whether the referendum was on the up-and-up, they would support it if it brought order to the republic.

"I'm not asking myself whether the results of the referendum are correct," said Magomed Viskhadzhiyev, a student at Grozny University. "Those of us here think only about one thing: We need law and order. We cast ballots for a constitution that symbolizes order."

Akhmad Kadyrov, head of the pro-Chechen administration, said Chechens were not seeking political favors by voting for the constitution but expecting that the republic would be granted a special economic status.

"Immediately after the adoption of the constitution, we will sign a treaty with [Moscow] on the redistribution of powers," Kadyrov was quoted as saying by the Kommersant newspaper in its Monday edition.

"We need a special economic status," he said. "Within the framework of Russian law, we will have to negotiate with [Moscow] for benefits. These might be connected to taxes and financing."

Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, said the future of Chechnya rests on the economic deals Grozny cuts with Moscow, not the constitution.

"The constitution is an abstract plan to organize state structures in Chechnya," he said. "In fact, under its new status, Chechnya has material needs that only can be provided for in economic agreements with Moscow."