Chechnya holds tense presidential election

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Dysfunctional, violent Chechnya holds election to replace assassinated president

The Associated Press

MAKHACHKALA, Russia -- Ten years after Chechnya descended into war, and less than four months after its president was assassinated in a bomb blast, Chechens are voting for his successor Sunday in an atmosphere of violence and suspicion.

The tense atmosphere has been worsened by suspicions that Chechen rebels may have had a part in last week's double airliner disaster that killed 90 people. Russia's Federal Security Service revealed in recent days that traces of the high explosive hexogen were found in the wreckage of both planes, indicating the work of terrorists.

The muted response of President Vladimir Putin's government to these revelations suggests it does not want to mar the election by highlighting any embarrassing security lapse.

The government portrays the election as a step toward restoring order and says it has the separatist region under control. But it has seen its claims undermined by persistent rebel strikes such as a bloody attack on police stations in the region.

Some 17,000 Russian soldiers and Chechen police are on round-the-clock election vigils. Russian forces claim to have killed dozens of separatist fighters, and Chechen police reportedly are under orders to fire on anyone wearing a mask.

Seven candidates are running to fill the late Akhmad Kadyrov's post, but six of them are seen as mostly symbolic rivals to the apparent Kremlin favorite -- Maj. Gen. Alu Alkhanov, Chechnya's top police official.

Many doubt the election is a true gauge of Chechens' real choice of leader. The election that brought Kadyrov to power in October was widely criticized as neither free nor fair. The 52-year-old Chechen president was killed May 9 in a bombing during a Victory Day parade in Grozny.

"All elections that have ever been held in Chechnya have been illegitimate," said Sergei Kovalyov, a leading Russian human rights advocate. "How can people express their right to a vote when all the roads are blocked off by military posts, and free movement is all but curtailed?"

Events a week ago underscore the authorities' tenuous hold. Officials organized a volunteer cleanup day in Grozny, the capital, under the slogan "Clean City - Clean Elections," and state-run television showed smiling volunteers hoeing flower beds in Grozny and sweeping up garbage.

That night, dozens of fighters attacked police posts and polling stations in the capital. Russian and Chechen officials played down the onslaught, but reports said up 50 people died.

On Thursday, a spokesman for Russia's military operations in Chechnya said Russian forces had killed more than 60 separatist fighters in Grozny and elsewhere during the previous five days.

Connecticut-sized Chechnya, a mainly Muslim territory in southern Russia, went through a devastating 1994-96 war until Russian forces pulled out, leaving it effectively independent.

The Russians swept back into Chechnya in September 1999 after Chechen rebels raided neighboring regions and were blamed for bombings that killed some 300 people at apartment buildings in Russian cities.

Stalemated in battle, the Kremlin publicly is aiming its strategy at undermining the rebels through civil means -- restoring services, holding elections, promising to compensate returning refugees.

A soccer match was organized in Moscow for the Chechen team this month, and Chechnya's Moscow-backed government widely publicized a ceremony announcing new electricity service and expanded cell phone service in Grozny.

However, Chechnya remains largely dysfunctional. Nearly three-quarters of its more than 1 million people are jobless. Electricity and telephone service is largely nonexistent. Hundreds have disappeared in kidnappings blamed on all sides. Tens of thousands have fled the oil-producing territory.

Although the Kremlin has expressed no official position on the candidates, Alkhanov appears to have its imprimatur. When Putin made a surprise visit to Kadyrov's grave last week, state television showed Alkhanov beside him. Chechen government officials barred Alkhanov's only serious challenger from running.

"I don't understand why they're wasting so much money on (the election)," said a 28-year-old Grozny woman who gave her name as Zulai. "It's just like it was in old Soviet times."

Magomet Isarapilov, a Chechen musician who fled to Moscow eight years ago, simply yearns for order, no matter who wins the presidency.

"I ache for my people. They're exhausted," he laments.

Associated Press writer Musa Sadulayev in Grozny contributed to this report.

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