GROZNY, Russia - Dagmein Khaseinova beams with pride recalling the day her Chechen village, devastated a decade ago in a war launched by Vladimir Putin, gave the Russian ruler's party nearly 100 percent support in a parliamentary vote this month.
Her little village of Mekhketi, she said, is even on the way to winning the cash prize she says authorities have promised for the polling station registering the biggest turnout.
"(We’ve) already won the regional competition. In a few days we’ll hear whether we won throughout all of Chechnya," Khaseinova, 53, said, wearing a traditional Chechen scarf over her head and squinting in the cold mountain air.
"The organizers of the polling station have been promised some kind of prize money if they win," she adds, hiding a smile.
Putin’s United Russia recorded a higher percentage of votes in predominantly Muslim Chechnya, where federal troops fought two wars since the fall of the Soviet Union, than anywhere else in the country. Official results show support at 99.5 percent and voter turnout of 99.4 percent.
Nationwide, the party won just under half the votes, securing a slim majority in the State Duma. Even that outcome, critics said, was the result of ballot stuffing and fraud. Countless complaints have been filed; but not in Chechnya
Official monitors here have not lodged a single complaint of voting violations, but among many local residents, the outcome has stirred some incredulity, albeit cautiously expressed.
"United Russia is the party of Putin, and Chechnya would never vote for Putin," said one middle-aged resident of the regional capital of Grozny, who declined to give his name for fear of retribution. "In the mind of every Chechen he is associated with the bombing that destroyed Grozny and other cities all over the region,"
"Voting for Putin is about as absurd as any vote with a 99 percent outcome," he said.
Regarding the competition between polling stations, the head of Chechnya’s Central Election Committee Ismail Baikhanov said that a competition had been organised, but only with the aim of "informing local populations, the technical equipping of polling stations and visual campaigning".
International monitors were out in force on election day in much of Russia, and say the vote was slanted in favour of United Russia and marred by numerous instances of ballot stuffing.
But they did not observe the poll in Chechnya or the rest of the North Caucasus because of security concerns over an insurgency, rooted in past wars, being waged in the region.
Militants want to throw off Russian rule and create an Islamist state.
Russia sent troops into Chechnya in late 1994 to try to crush a drive for independence. Much of Grozny was flattened in heavy fighting but the army struggled to quell separatist rebels fighting a guerrilla war in the mountains.
Thousands of troops and fighters were killed, and various estimates put the civilian death toll in the tens of thousands, before the demoralised Russian army withdrew. Many more people who had their homes destroyed were displaced.
"DON’T WAG YOUR TONGUE!"
When Putin launched a second war in 1999 that established federal control over Chechnya after a period of de facto independence, Makhketi in Chechnya’s Vedeno region saw some of the fiercest fighting.
A little over a decade later, a left-over United Russia election poster flaps in the wind over the quiet village square with a huge picture of Chechnya’s smiling leader Ramzan Kadyrov donning a construction worker’s hat.
Locals say Kadyrov’s second wife hails from a family in the village. Kadyrov says that although he accepts polygamy as a Muslim practise, he has only one wife.
His strict rule has sparked accusations of human rights violations, say rights groups, including extra-judicial detention and torture. Few people, though, dare to talk about their experiences for fear of retribution.
Villager Daudov Vasady, 79, said he had no choice but to vote for United Russia.
"My wife and I, we voted for United Russia. If our (leader Kadyrov) votes for United Russia then we have to as well," he said.
"If I hadn’t voted, if others wouldn’t have voted, then people would have noticed and it would have created problems," he said, refusing to explain futher.
As another villager speaks, a blue car carrying three men drives past. One shouts from the car: "Don’t wag your tongue about anything personal!"
GIVEN UP MONITORING
On the popular Caucasian Knot internet site, a blogger who was identified as lamro95 says all the teachers in the city were called into work on the day of the elections to make sure they voted.
"An acquaintance of mine voted three times in the same polling station. Since the stations were in Chechen schools, teachers voted several times."
Others say the key to the results was not in the force used to make people vote, but in ballot stuffing.
Human rights workers say they have given up monitoring elections. They say polling station workers told them they had stayed up late into the night to fill ballot boxes with United Russia votes long after polling stations had closed.
"We didn’t monitor the elections because we knew there was no point to it," said an independent rights worker who refused to allow his name or the title of his organisation to be published for fear of retribution.
"The turnout will always be 99 percent and the number of votes (for the ruling party) will always reach 99 percent. We should simply stop the elections and save everyone a lot of money."
The day after the election, Chechnya’s voting commission was forced to raise the number of eligible voters in the republic, after the number of ballots cast exceeded the registered voter number by some 2,000 votes.
The head of Chechnya’s voting committee Baikhanov said the original number of voters — 608,797 — was already six months old when it was announced as the number of voters on Dec. 2, two days before the election.
"Since that time a number of people reached voting age, and they cast their ballots. There were also those who voted with absentee ballots, and there were military who have since come to our region" he said.
Many people say they are content to accept the outcome of the election and want to maintain the small gains they have seen since the second Chechen war, but anger at the perception of vote rigging is not far from the surface.
POLITICS VS REAL LIFE
Isa Khadjimuradov, who was until recently the leader of the left-leaning Just Russia party in Chechnya, said he had received an awkward phone call from his party’s headquarters in Moscow the day after the election.
Why, he was asked, did the official results show that some 90 percent of the party’s 12,000 members had cast their ballots for another party?
"You can’t look at the situation in Chechnya in the same context as you look at the situation in the rest of Russia," said Khadjimuradov, who wore a traditional Chechen costume, including a hat made from baby lambskin.
"Politics is not thought of here as real life. They affect the authorities to some degree, but nonetheless, politics, the political process is not really reflected in the lives of normal people," he said.
Khadjimuradov carries an iPhone displaying a picture of himself with Kadyrov, although they are from different parties.
Many Chechens say Kadyrov, a rebel who became a Kremlin loyalist, is the engine for United Russia’s performance.
He came to power three years after his father, the region’s first Moscow-backed leader, was killed by separatists in 2004 and has enjoyed a steady flow of Russian funds that he has used to rebuild Grozny.
Across the city, United Russia flags flutter along the side of the road, next to penants bearing the colours of the Chechen and Russian flags. Pictures of a young, austere-looking Vladimir Putin stare down at motorists across the small region.
Glitzy construction projects loom above the main thoroughfare named Putin Prospect. Above a giant New Year’s tree in central Grozny, red lights spell out: "Thank You Ramzan For Grozny".
Some local residents say Kadyrov uses the money to further his own personal ambitions and establish a cult of personality in the region, while channeling money and jobs to his own Benoi clan, the largest and most powerful in Chechnya.
At a cafe in Grozny, Khadjimuradov’s friends – other functionaries in government offices – debated whether Kadyrov is more like Peter the Great or Caliph Uthman, the Muslim leader who brought Islam to neighbouring Dagestan in the 7th century.
"Kadyrov is a builder. He has a vision like Peter the Great did," said Khadjimuradov.
Political analysts say there is real popularity for United Russia among the people who have benefited from Moscow’s funds and recognise the importance of loyalty to the Kremlin which results in heavy state funding.
"The support he enjoys from Russia is one of the fundamental bases for stability in the region and the reason why he can exercise so much authority … So he has a reason to be personally thankful to Putin," said Yevgeny Minchenko, director of the International Institute of Political Analysis in Moscow.
In exchange for clamping down on Islamist insurgents, human rights groups say Moscow ignores accusations of rights abuses such as extra-judicial kidnappings and police torture.
The logic follows that as long as the region remains quiet Moscow turns a blind eye to violations of Russia’s secular constitution as Kadyrov boosts his own authority by imposing his own version of radical Islam.
Kadyrov has denied allegations of wrong-doing as attempts to blacken his name and says he works only to rebuild the region and keep peace.
The North Caucasus region as a whole saw support for United Russia much higher than in most other regions.
Neighbouring Dagestan and Ingushetia both showed United Russia support above 90 percent.
Idris Abadiev, a former deputy in the parliament in Ingushetia, and leaders of other local clans say the vote was falsified in Ingushetia.
They complained to Ingushetia’s Islamic court, which locals say operates unofficially under the regional Mufti. There they decided to sue Ingushetia leader Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and the regional election committee head Musa Yevloyev.
"To protect the interests and the rights of our own people, we have to pick our own deputies to enter parliament, not those who have been assigned to us," said Abadiev, speaking in his house outside of the city of Nazran.
A combination of corruption, religious militancy and clan loyalties have inflamed the insurgency in the North Caucasus which President Dmitry Medvedev has called Russia’s biggest domestic security threat.
Nearly 700 people have been killed in the first 11 months of this year in violence between security officials and militants, says the Caucasian Knot, which monitors violence.
"I didn’t vote because it doesn’t matter how you fill out your voting ballot. Putin will always be in power. Putin doesn’t respect our laws, the laws of Shariah that we want here," said 26-year-old Malik Kastoyev.