GROZNY, CHECHNYA —
At a polling station in Chechnya’s capital, Grozny, children in traditional costume danced to music as voters walked past to cast their ballots.
More a celebration than an exercise in democracy as Chechen voters for the first time elected strongman Ramzan Kadyrov.
Kadyrov was directly elected for the first time September 18 by a whopping 98 percent of voters, with 95 percent of the republic voting, according to official figures, tightening his grip on power in the north Caucasus region.
The landslide win was predictable as Kadyrov has ruled Chechnya for a decade, appointed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, with almost total control over the republic.
Grozny’s mayor, Muslim Khuchiev, accompanied by an entourage in full Caucasus regalia, arrived in a horse-drawn carriage with flags bearing the image of Kadyrov and no doubt about who would win. “Everyone will vote unanimously,” he told VOA, “because they are voting not just for someone’s seats in the Duma (parliament), not just for someone’s seats in state bodies but, they are voting for their future.”
Kadyrov is seen by supporters as bringing peace and development to Chechnya, after two failed wars with Russia for independence, while critics say he has become a cult of personality.
Every major street in Grozny bears an image or reference to Ramzan Kadyrov, or his father Akhmad Kadyrov, and his face is often seen on car windows, T-shirts, and souvenirs.
The government-controlled media covers his every move, lauding him as a “Hero of Russia”, an award bestowed on him by Putin.
Fireworks illuminate the sky at the 'Heart of Chechnya' mosque to mark national election day in Chechnya's provincial capital Grozny, Russia, Sept. 18, 2016.
“All the environment around us speaks for itself,” Kadyrov supporter Melizha Karnaeva tells VOA. “I think, I even know and I am sure, that this bright blue sky, that is thanks to Ramzan Kadyrov!”
A rebel like his father, they both switched sides to join Putin, who spent billions to rebuild Chechnya and prop up Kadyrov, who in return cracked down on militants and critics.
In Grozny, Kadyrov Prospekt runs past a modern mall and hotel and business complex “Grozny City” before passing the Akhmad Kadyrov mosque to merge with Putin Prospekt.
Stability at ‘huge price’
In a nondescript apartment building on Putin Prospekt, activist Abdulla Duduev tells VOA the opposition Yabloko political party fielded candidates for the election, including himself, but did no campaigning in Chechnya out of fear opposition supporters would be persecuted.
"We keep working in the regions,” he said. “What motivates this? This is our Republic! We were born here. We can’t be indifferent to what is happening here,” concludes Duduev.
Tight security is visible in the center of Grozny, especially around the mosque, known as the “Heart of Chechnya,” Grozny City restaurant and hotel complex, and the neighboring castle-style residence of Kadyrov.
While the election lends Kadyrov a veil of legitimacy, critics say he runs the republic as his own kingdom, ignoring federal laws.
“Well, he established peace. So, that’s fact. So, that’s no doubt,” says the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Alexei Malashenko. “Chechen society, they paid a huge price for this stability,” he said.
Chechnya's stability will one day be tested, say analysts, when Putin is no longer in the Kremlin or Kadyrov is no longer in power.
Officials fear that day could come sooner if the hundreds of Islamist Chechens fighting in Syria try to bring their fight back home.
Olga Pavlova contributed to this report.