A surreal optimism ahead of Chechen vote

Officials promote republic as tranquil, orderly despite evidence to contrary

October 03, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GROZNY, Chechnya - With an election for choosing the next president of Chechnya only days away, officials in this broken, pulverized city are gripped by an almost surreal optimism.

Everything is secure, they cheerfully say, despite frequent attacks on Russian troops by Chechen rebels and the nightly crackle of gunfire. Civilians feel increasingly safe, the officials boast, though Chechens themselves say they fear both the rebels fighting for independence and the Russian soldiers.

And voters feel confident that the election Sunday will be fair, organizers insist, even though human rights groups allege that the vote is rigged to favor the Kremlin's favored presidential candidate, Akhmad Kadyrov.

No matter how hard officials try to disguise it, Russia has not been able to fully impose its will. Twelve years after declaring independence from Moscow, Chechen separatists are still waging a hit-and-run guerrilla war.

The Kremlin, preparing for Russia's own presidential elections in March, insists that Chechnya has become a tranquil and orderly place, and local officials appear eager to promote that rosy view.

"The situation is normal, in the city and the republic," said Atle Takayev, chief of Grozny's Oktyabrskaya police district, whose headquarters is protected by 9-foot-high concrete walls.

Crimes in Oktyabrskaya, he told visiting journalists, were limited to petty offenses such as thefts and drug possession, and he all but apologized for how dull life is. "There are normal crimes here," he said, "like everywhere else." The station's logbook, however, included reports of a kidnapping, a seizure of illegal weapons and the discovery of a roadside mine.

After first saying no, Takayev agreed to let the journalists visit a nearby jail. When the journalists arrived, two olive-green vans pulled out of the compound. The cells, in the bowels of a partially-destroyed building, were empty. When the journalists left, they saw the same two vans, very likely with the prisoners inside, parked on the street, waiting to return.

The latest round of fighting in Chechnya began four years ago, in August 1999, when Chechen rebels invaded the neighboring republic of Dagestan. About the same time, a wave of bombings that Russian authorities blamed on Chechens claimed more than 300 lives in Moscow and other cities.

Vowing to crush the troublemakers and "drown them in the toilet," then-Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin ordered a major military assault that devastated Grozny. Many Russians credit Putin's election as president in 2000 to his pledge to defeat the Chechens, but the war has dragged on, costing the lives of as many as 60,000 Chechens since 1999, along with the lives of 6,000 Russian soldiers.

Russia's conduct of the war was widely condemned abroad, but Putin argued that Russia's battles were part of a war against terrorism - an argument that the Bush administration accepted after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Separatists, meanwhile, have grown more militant. They have increasingly relied on suicide- and truck-bombings within Russia. At least 75 people have died in such attacks this year.

The Kremlin is anxious for the war to end, in part because Putin is expected to seek re-election in March. Moscow's strategy appears to be to declare victory and pull out, but the Kremlin is first "Chechenizing" the war by training Chechens recruited by the republic's Interior Ministry to battle the separatists.

Col. Ilya Shabalkin, the chief Russian military spokesman in Chechnya, said the 42,000 troops already here will probably remain for at least several more years.

The election of a new president, even if it is Kadyrov, will not necessarily usher in an era of stability. Chechnya has had three presidents: The first, a rebel leader, was killed by a Russian air-to-ground rocket. The second, a Moscow ally, fled for his life after seven months in office. The third, Aslan Maskhadov, still nominally holds the office but is said to move from village to village to avoid capture by Russian forces.

Kadyrov's credentials as a democrat are thin. He served as chief of the Islamic law courts in the village of Vedeno during Chechnya's brief period of independence, deserted the rebel cause after militants invaded Dagestan, and soon thereafter met with Putin and became a Kremlin favorite.

Over the summer, Kadyrov's dismal poll ratings made it clear that he was in trouble. The Kremlin responded last month by nudging his two strongest challengers off the ballot.

Putin persuaded one to drop out by offering him a post as presidential adviser on Chechen issues. The front-runner, Malik Saidulayev, was removed from the ballot by the Kremlin-appointed Chechen courts.

During Saidulayev's brief campaign, one of his campaign officials was fatally shot outside his headquarters and a second was kidnapped, said Saidulayev, who believes he was also the target of two unsuccessful car bomb attacks.

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