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The Moscow Times, December 5, 2003

All-Out Battle for Presidency in Ufa

By Alex Fak

Itar-Tass / AP
Murtaza Rakhimov
UFA, Bashkortostan -- The first thing a visitor notices when landing at the Ufa airport is a new icon on the cellphone screen. The local network's encoding has been disabled and the security services can eavesdrop on any conversations.

Phone-tapping is just one of the methods allegedly being used against opposition candidates in the run-up to Sunday's presidential elections in this republic of about 4 million people.

In Bashkortostan, where Murtaza Rakhimov is struggling to retain office after 13 years as president, the misuse of power to win the election is starker "than anywhere else in the country," said Nikolai Petrov, an analyst on regional politics at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Murtaza, as he is known to almost everyone here, is a veritable star of the mainstream Bashkir media. He regularly leads the news on the republic's most prominent channel, BST, and his stiff portrait haunts visitors everywhere -- on the streets, in hotel lobbies and in supermarkets.

But Rakhimov turns green if his opponents receive coverage. When a local affiliate of Moscow's Hit FM radio began running 10-minute press reviews mentioning rival candidates, it was ordered to vacate the building, threatened with power cuts and had a bomb scare -- all within three days, according to Stas Mikhailov, its news producer.

Hit FM is still on the air, but another station that dared question Rakhimov's policies, Radio Bulgar, wasn't so lucky. In early November, local authorities cut off its antenna with a circular saw. The station's staff taped the incident and has kept the sawed-off antenna as an exhibit to visitors.

Officials also have abused the press in a more literal sense. On Thursday, investigators with the local prosecutor's office determined that Rakhimov's chief of staff had ordered that a batch of falsified ballots be printed up.

In any case, Rakhimov may not need falsified ballots to garner votes. In one of many signed complaints sent to the prosecutor's office, an employee at an Ufa refinery said her boss had threatened to fire workers who did not vote for Rakhimov.

In fact, the workers may have no choice about whom they pick. Bashkirenergo and Bashneft, among other government-connected companies, have declared Sunday a work day, according to a Western observer who has interviewed the workers and also to several complaints filed with the local elections committee.

Neither company would confirm this.

But according to the complaints, management told employees that they would be bused to a special precinct to cast absentee ballots. The stubs for the ballots are numbered, instilling fear that the ballots themselves, and therefore the vote, could be traced.

"If there is one thing that has impressed me, it is how really scared a lot of people are," the Western observer said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "This is different from any election that I've worked in before."

Meanwhile, Rakhimov's opponents, both in presidential and local parliamentary elections, reiterate countless stories of locked town halls, power outages in the middle of campaign stops and flat refusals from town officials to let them rent meeting halls. The Russian Fund for Free Elections, a watchdog group sponsored by the Central Elections Commission, has collected 55 instances of election violations -- many involving coercion -- and 48 instances of misuse of so-called administrative resources, in which the party in power uses its position to influence election results.

In the last presidential election, in 1998, Rakhimov managed to bar two main opponents for election violations, leaving only a token candidate from one of his own ministries. The Supreme Court in Moscow ruled this illegal, but no repeat election was held.

This year, Rakhimov has been less successful and faces challenges from at least three prominent opponents. They include Sergei Veremeyenko, a co-owner of Kremlin-connected Mezhprombank; Ralif Safin, a former vice president of LUKoil and a current shareholder; and Alexander Arinin, an opponent barred last time around who has received support from Oleg Deripaska. Deripaska's metals holding, Base Element, reportedly has an interest in local mining and oil corporations. Arinin's team says the oligarch's support is "insubstantial."

Veremeyenko, by far the most financially able of the three, has organized a buzzing campaign office in an Ufa neighborhood and attracted the support of other local and Duma candidates, even those wary of his agenda.

"He's no angel," said one candidate who receives some support from Veremeyenko. "He's a hard-liner, just what the [Kremlin] Chekists want. But as they say, choose the lesser of two evils."

Safin, who has been denied local TV airtime, has used a LUKoil gas station to show his campaign commercials -- even as his aides vigorously deny that he receives support from LUKoil.

Bashkortostan's greatest pre-election battles have been fought in court, and the teams of the opposition candidates are well staffed with lawyers.

The Bashkir and later the Russian Supreme Court reinstated Safin after he was briefly struck off the ballot for demanding the open privatization of oil resources and for giving a free concert in Ufa starring his pop singer daughter, Alsou.

Moscow had to step in to get Veremeyenko's name put on the ballot. This included a ruling by the Supreme Court and a threat from Central Elections Commission head Alexander Veshnyakov to open criminal cases against members of the Bashkir elections committee.

Veremeyenko said he is convinced that Rakhimov will try to stop him by any means necessary. His campaign headquarters teem with guards, and his deputy chief of staff, Anatoly Dubovsky, recently called a news conference to say that his home phone had been tapped and transcripts of private conversations had appeared on the Internet.

Veremeyenko also worries about eavesdroppers, pointing in an interview this week to a large black briefcase in his office that is supposed to block listening devices.

Rakhimov's staff writes off election complaints as self-aggrandizing propaganda.

But Dubovsky, who was elected to the regional parliament in March, has yet to take his seat because local election officials have not issued his work papers. "Silly people. They think they are making it hard for us," Dubovsky said. "But at the end of the day, the only thing it shows is that Rakhimov is afraid of us."

The candidates offer a typical bouquet of promises -- higher wages and pensions, better medical care and safer streets. They all complain that the closed-auction privatization of most of the Bashkir oil-refining industry, as well as the recent sell-off of part of UralSib bank, has benefited Rakhimov cronies and specifically his son, Ural. Courts in Moscow and Tambov have agreed.

Opponents also point out that Bashkortostan, despite being one of the few regions that contributes to the federal budget, has not been attracting the investments needed to maintain its oil refining sector.

Sergei Semyonov, a deputy in Rakhimov's election staff, dismissed all this as "black PR." The financial backing of the candidates far outstrips any administrative help the current president might receive, he said.

He insisted that Veremeyenko has used his federal connections to appear on national television channels and is snowballing voters through opposition newspapers. If the local media choose to report about Rakhimov, it's purely their own decision, he said.

As for the closed auction, "the people did not need this to be an open auction," he said. "If they [the shares] were to belong to a company outside the republic, all the taxes would go to Moscow. Our people would be left gulping water mixed with gasoline."

There are mixed feelings about President Vladimir Putin's role in all of this.

"Putin does not care what happens here," said Eduard Khusnutdinov, a former opposition journalist and a Duma candidate with Yabloko.

Others believe the Kremlin cares very much -- but only about the Duma elections in the republic. Rakhimov is the only man who can bring the pro-Kremlin United Russia party enough votes, said Carnegie's Petrov.

Rakhimov heads the party's regional list, has received the endorsement of its chairman, Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov, and has combined some of his campaign efforts with those of United Russia. This summer, the local parliament redivided the recalcitrant capital, Ufa, between four districts with largely rural constituencies that are easier to control and could water down the urban vote, according to a local pollster. United Russia is on track to win all of them, he said.

But the Kremlin has not abandoned Veremeyenko, who is also a senior United Russia official. He is running in an attempt to weaken Rakhimov's iron grip on the republic by straining his resources and then publicizing violations during the election process, Petrov said.

Amid all this, "people have ended up being hostage to United Russia," a local journalist said.

No wonder, then, that few people interviewed here showed any interest in the election. A receptionist in one government office said that she would of course vote for Rakhimov. But she confided that what she really hopes for is a college scholarship and a chance to get out of Ufa.


See also:

the original at

State Duma elections 2003

The Moscow Times, December 5, 2003

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