Who stole Russia's election?

Relations between the United States and Russia are at their lowest point in a decade. Westerners worry that Russia is returning to a darker past, while Russians see a biased Western media at the base of widespread misunderstanding. Along with the war over Chechnya and the sunken Kursk, the controversy recently has focused on allegations that Russian authorities rigged the March 26 presidential election to produce a landslide victory for Vladimir Putin.

The allegations were made by the English-language Moscow Times in a Sept. 9 report, based on a lengthy investigation by the paper. The Times bases its charges in part on a sampling it took in Dagestan, a crescent-shaped territory that lies between Chechnya and the Caspian Sea. Based on that sampling, the Times says, 551,000 votes were stolen in Dagestan. According to the report, "a conservative guess would be that fraud [throughout Russia] was on a scale of that of Dagestan, meaning hundreds of thousands of votes were stolen for Putin in each republic," or 2.2 million overall.

If the report is accurate, then Mr. Putin stole the election and his government is illegitimate. But my own analysis of the Times's methods raises questions about this conclusion, and considering the fragility of US-Russia relations, caution is due in our reaction to the report's findings.

My expertise is in Dagestani politics, so this is the portion of the Times investigation I will address. While the report is correct in its description of some fraudulent procedures employed in Dagestan, my concerns about the investigation are twofold: First, the Times's figures are based on unscientific methods. And second, the interpretation of the figures lacks a historical perspective, which may change the significance of the fraud.

Back to the question of methodology. The Times analyzed 16 percent of Dagestani precincts, but it did not take into consideration the ethnic makeup of the sample population. Dagestan is a complex mosaic of 34 distinct ethno-linguistic groups that vary in their approach to party politics. Since ethnicity affects the way people vote, the sample on which the study is based must reflect the same ethnic divisions found in the larger population. In this case, it didn't. And since there is no way to determine the ethnic composition of its sample, it's impossible to ascertain the reliability of the Times's projection to 551,000 fraudulent votes.

Furthermore, the data for this 16 percent is drawn disproportionately from Dagestan's capital city, Makhachkala. Voter fraud has generally occurred at its highest levels in the capital, where Dagestani government officials are most effective at manipulating ballots.

To put the problems with this methodology into perspective, the Times concludes that, based on this 16 percent sampling, 88,263 votes were stolen from the Communist presidential candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, and transferred to the winning candidate, Putin. Times further assumes that fraud occurred at the same level in all other precincts in Dagestan, and extrapolates to the conclusion that 551,000 Dagestani votes were illegally allocated to Putin. If the original sampling is flawed, then the distortion will grow as the report projects it throughout the rest of Dagestan, and then accepts it as a standard by which to gauge the rest of the Russian vote.

The Times report is correct that there was electoral fraud in Dagestan during the election. But based on the electoral history in this region, the motives for and outcome of voting fraud may be quite different from that suggested by the Times.

Dagestan is a mountainous, rural region, where more than 60 percent of the population lives below Russia's poverty level - which is very low indeed. Only Chechnya is poorer. As such, it relies heavily on Moscow for economic subsidies. Dagestan's overriding political agenda, then, has less to do with party politics and more to do with cultivating its relations with Moscow.

Because Dagestanis depend on Moscow for economic support, they have long taken a manipulative approach toward the Kremlin. Dagestani leaders offer support to Kremlin officials while also playing on Kremlin fears of instability. In 1996 there was at least as much fraud in Dagestan's election of Boris Yeltsin as in its recent support for Putin, though it went largely unreported in the media. What's important here is that voting fraud does not appear to be orchestrated by Moscow, but to originate among Dagestani officials.

Consider the December 1999 state Duma election. As in the US, Russia's representatives are elected in each legislative district. But in Russia, parties get to send additional representatives based on how many votes the party receives. Dagestan has only two legislative districts, and Dagestanis feel they are misunderstood in Moscow. So it was not surprising in the December elections that Dagestani leaders began to maneuver to place Dagestanis high on party lists to increase the chances that several Dagestanis would be elected to the Duma. Then Dagestani leaders openly, if illegally, shifted votes from one party to another to maximize the number of Dagestanis elected - six, instead of two.

If the motives for fraud have been misunderstood, so have its methods. In its report, the Times makes the following statement: "Everyone from collective farm workers to college professors was forced to vote for Putin. Some critics have gone so far as to argue that on the eve of the 21st century, such bullying excluded villagers as a class from the democratic process."

With respect to Dagestan, these statements are false. I spent two weeks there this summer talking with many Dagestanis, including key political observers, without finding confirmation for such claims. Moreover, these claims have been refuted by Dagestan's leading independent political observer, and are not supported by Times's anecdotal field notes from Dagestan, which the reporter was candid enough to share with me.

My own analysis suggests that, considering Putin's strong support in the republic, and that "turnout" in the presidential election was about 20 percent greater than expected, it's likely that 350,000 to 400,000 votes were allocated illegally to Putin. While this is a large sum, it doesn't appear to support the Times's projection of 2.2 million. Of course, fraud is fraud. The Times is right to expose its prevalence throughout Russia's electoral system, and to her credit, the principal reporter has been very responsive to my queries. But if the West mistakes the motives, methods, sources, and significance of that fraud, its reaction will be skewed.

Robert Bruce Ware, an assistant professor of philosophical studies at Southern Illinois University, conducts fieldwork in the northeast Caucasus.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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