Resignation and fear pervade today's elections in Chechnya

Many people leave capital amid threat of violence over presidential vote

August 29, 2004|By Kim Murphy | Kim Murphy,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ARGUN, Russia - Among the insurgents fighting in Chechnya's long-running war for independence, Musost Khutiyev is known as a "national traitor." This is because he forgave the Russians whose troops seized his 18-year-old son, removed his vital organs, and then ransomed the body back to Khutiyev for $1,500.

Khutiyev, who commanded the Chechen rebels' Argun unit until 2002, is deputy mayor of the same city; his security forces are fighting the rebels in collaboration with Russian troops; and when he goes to the polls in today's presidential election, he will cast his vote for Alu Alkhanov, the candidate the Kremlin wants to see installed as Chechnya's next president.

"I have no moral right to accuse the entire Russian people of killing my son," Khutiyev said yesterday from his heavily secured office at City Hall. "Maybe if we had honest and very decent people as our leaders, Chechnya could function on its own. But right now, we can't live without Russia."

It is with this same sense of resignation - tinged with fear of what happens to people who are not resigned - that most Chechens are preparing for today's vote, called to replace the last Kremlin-backed president, Akhmad Kadyrov, who was assassinated by a bomb in May.

The insurgents have vowed to disrupt the election and kill Alkhanov if he is elected, and political observers say Russia is taking pains to ensure that there is no other outcome to the balloting.

Following a pair of airline crashes in Russia last week that investigators say might have been caused by Chechen suicide bombers, residents are bracing for potential violence at the polls today. Many people have streamed out of the capital, Grozny, for the relative safety of smaller villages. By late yesterday morning, a usually bustling market on the west side of Grozny was nearly deserted.

"I haven't had a customer since early morning. Look, no customers at all," said Inga Magoyeva, who was sitting nervously behind a table of cheap electronic games. "I'll pack and go myself soon. Everybody's leaving town. They're afraid."

Russia has been at war with Chechen separatists more or less constantly since 1994. At first there was broad support here for the homegrown fighters, but many others argued for remaining inside Russia. So much violence occurred that both sides are regarded by many people with equal disdain.

Today's elections - crucial to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin's attempt to portray Chechnya as a willing volunteer for peaceful integration into the Russian Federation - seem to mean little to many Chechens.

On A.H. Kadyrov Street - renamed a week ago in an apparent attempt to inspire enthusiasm for the assassinated president's legacy - pensioner Alan Dudayev scoffed. "We don't see anything good in this republic so far, and as far as this election goes, it's a formality. They have already selected their man."

With October's election of Kadyrov, a former Muslim spiritual leader and rebel fighter who switched sides and joined the Russians, there was some optimism that a leader friendly with Russia would at least be able to end the war. Slowly, compensation for bombed-out homes was being paid, some reconstruction was under way, and people who have been largely without telephones for a decade have been lining up to buy the republic's first cellular phones.

Kadyrov succeeded in attracting hundreds of former rebel fighters, like Khutiyev, to the pro-Russia side by offering them amnesty and jobs. But Kadyrov's security forces, directed by his son, Ramzan, became nearly as feared as the Russian troops, and mysterious nighttime arrests and disappearances have continued.

Many Chechens regard Kadyrov's forces, who were unable to protect his life, with equal terror as they do Russian troops and the rebels.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.

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