The chronic republic

October 05, 2003

RIGGED? It might be more accurate to say that today's elections in Chechnya are trussed.

The Kremlin is pushing ahead with a vote for president of that ripsawed republic - having forced out the only credible opposition candidates, having decided to turn over the ballot boxes to the forces of the presumptive favorite for a day before they're counted, and having, just to be on the safe side, also given Russian soldiers stationed there the right to vote alongside Chechen civilians.

There's a time-honored Russian tradition at work here. The government presents an outrageous falsehood as truth, so outrageous that even the government doesn't expect the public to swallow it; the public must, however, pretend to believe it. And thus ordinary Chechens must hail the dawn of normal life and the introduction of popular democracy and the beginning of fruitful relations with Moscow as if they thought all those things were actually about to happen, though Russians and Chechens alike know perfectly well that they won't.

Chechens who cling too publicly to another sort of truth understand that that is likely to end with the most unpleasant consequences.

Why does Moscow persist in such a farce? Simple: It demonstrates power. If the Kremlin can say, "Akhmad Kadyrov is the freely elected president of Chechnya," and no one dares challenge that assertion, that shows just how powerful the Russian authorities are - precisely because it's not true. Only weak and equivocating governments resort to honesty.

Human rights organizations have established a clear record of Russian atrocities in Chechnya (and Chechen atrocities, too). The Russian response has been to keep human rights advocates out of the entire northern Caucasus. It's not subtle. It's not supposed to be.

Once, long ago, Chechnya was a hot crisis, but now it's one of those interminable, insoluble problems that fester forever, like Northern Ireland - except that nobody wastes time with kneecappings in Chechnya. It's a place where organized crime, national aspirations, military profiteering, Muslim jihadism, pillage, oil piracy and blockheaded generals all coexist, more or less uneasily. The Kremlin would love to install Mr. Kadyrov as president, declare victory and bring the troops home. The problem is that if it did all that, ordinary Chechens would be freed of the obligation to pretend. Then things could get really nasty. Expect more festering.

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