Regular readers may recall my "Scotsman in Ul'yanovsk" postcard several months ago, where I am currently undertaking PhD research into party activism in the mid-Volga region of Russia. Since then, my work has taken me far and wide, and has included a stint being an international election observer during the presidential election in March, and in between times, generally causing chaos in foreign climes.
My latest adventures have taken me to Tatarstan, an autonomous republic approximately 900km from Moscow, and a famous bastion of post-Soviet democracy. Both international and local observers have reported some strange goings-on at election time over the past few years, and the latest elections have been similarly fascinating.
But first, it is necessary to comment upon the remarkable powers of clairvoyance possessed by the President of Tatarstan, Mintimer Shaimiev. Back in September, shortly after the "Fatherland-All Russia" ("OVR" in Russian) electoral bloc was formed, he proclaimed that the party (of which he, coincidentally, was one of the leaders), would likely win in Tatarstan. He was right enough, and 40.65 per cent of Tatarstan's voters put their cross in the OVR box.
For comparative purposes, of the 88 regions of Russia which voted, only Moscow city, with a fractionally greater 40.86 per cent, and Ingushetia - at "87.98 per cent" - managed to trump this. In the country as a whole, the bloc received just 13.33 per cent. Another comparison - just 16.64 per cent of voters in Tatarstan plumped for "Unity," the party which supported Putin, compared to 23.32 per cent of Russian voters as a whole.
Within a few weeks, though, the political landscape had changed somewhat; Yeltsin had resigned, and a presidential election was in prospect. And on 11 January 2000, Shaimiev was quoted on the NTV television channel as saying, "Putin is the choice of the citizens of Tatarstan."
This rather flew in the face of logic, since the results of the State Duma election appeared to show that this was not actually the case. But come election day on 26 March, President Shaimiev's forecast turned out to be spot on once again, and Putin received 68.8 per cent of the vote on a 79.8 per cent turnout - higher, even, than in the acting President's native St Petersburg.
This, however, does not tell the whole story. Take, for instance, the Apastovskii district in south-western Tatarstan. Here there were 16,449 registered voters, spread out over an area of 1047.5 square kilometres, or 15.7 voters per square kilometre.
This is indicative of a fairly rural area. A look at the map confirms this fact - Apastovskii district consists of 73 villages, the average number of voters in each being 225, and the number in most is considerably less, since the "capital" village of Apastovo is, relatively speaking, a reasonably sized place.
A further look at the data reveals that of the 16,449 voters, around a third are of pensionable age, and therefore many are likely to be ill, infirm, without transport, or without a telephone to ask for the mobile ballot box to be brought to them.
Add to this the factor of weather on 26 March - the back end of winter, with about 40 cm of snow still lying on the ground - and you might come to the (justifiable) conclusion that the turnout wouldn't be particularly high.
This, however, is Tatarstan, where age, infirmity, weather, or, for that matter, voters, seemingly make little difference to the outcome of elections. A look at the results reveals that of our 16,449 voters, just 36 failed to make it, and the remaining 16,413 voted - a remarkable turnout of 99.8 per cent.
Unbounded electoral enthusiasm
With 57 polling stations in the district, this means that at 21 or more of them (it's impossible to know exactly, since unlike every other region of Russia, the Tatar electoral commission doesn't publish the individual results for every station), the turnout was 100 per cent. Of the 99.8 per cent, 90.7 per cent of them voted for Putin, although even this was relatively disappointing compared to the district of Nurlatskii in southern Tatarstan, where Putin got 97.8 per cent (admittedly on a lower turnout of just 98.8 per cent).
And just in case you think these are isolated examples, in thirty-two of Tatarstan's forty-three administrative districts, the turnout topped 90 per cent, and in twenty-two of those, it was above 95 per cent.
In the district of Kaibitskii, the turnout was also 99.8 per cent. Such figures are not unusual in Tatarstan, however. In the 1996 election for the position of President of Tatarstan (sole candidate: M Shaimiev), the voters of Kaibitskii turned out in droves to support him.
To be precise, 11,722 of the 11,724 registered voters turned out - an amazing 99.98 per cent turnout. If it had been a competitive election, it's not unreasonable to assume that the turnout would have been at least 101 per cent.
Some more equal than others
At a local level, there have also been some interesting developments. Tatarstan has its own parliament - the State Council - the elections to which also took place in December 1999 (and March 2000 in the seats where the election was invalid in December). The constitution of Tatarstan states that "Every voter shall have one vote of equal weight" in these elections.
The Tatar definition of "equality" deviates slightly from the norm, however, since the electoral constituencies consist of a seemingly random number of voters. Constituency No. 1, for instance, has 813,396 voters, whereas Constituency 38 has 7623. In between these two extremes is just about every imaginable count of voters.
The net result is that rural voters (the ones who loyally turn out 99.98 per cent of the time to vote for The Powers that Be) are 2.4 times better represented in the Tatar State Parliament than urban ones (where the turnout figures tend to be lower).
At present this matter is sub judice, since a local journalist brought a case to court, alleging that this inequality infringed his rights as a voter. The case has thus far been rejected twice in the Tatar courts and upheld twice in the Russian Supreme Court...
Other fascinating allegations include the constituency where 9 per cent of the electorate seemingly died between the two rounds of the election,
I should point out that there's nothing wrong with this in itself - cleaners, doormen and binmen are just as entitled to be administer the democratic process as anybody else. It's just that it's unusual to find thirteen of them from one organisation on an electoral commission....
As a result of all this, the opposition parties in Tatarstan claim that the results of the Tatar elections are falsified, and seventeen of them have published a declaration to this effect. I've been careful not allege this. However, as the local Scottish Political Scientist, my conclusions are the following:
a) The voters of Tatarstan are the most active in the world, and are absolutely delighted with the jobs that Putin and Shaimiev are doing,
b) The opposition parties might have a point.
I'll leave it to the reader to decide which of the two explanations he or she prefers...
Derek S Hutcheson, 26 June 2000