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On 29 August, Chechen voters will go to the polls for the second time within 11 months to endorse or reject the candidate perceived by the Kremlin as most capable of imposing some semblance of normality in the war-torn region. Moscow's initial choice to head the republic, former mufti Akhmad-hadji Kadyrov, who was originally installed as pro-Moscow leader in June 2000, was killed on 9 May by a terrorist bomb which experts believe could only have been planted by a traitor within Kadyrov's entourage.
Of a field of 22 hopefuls, only seven succeeded in registering to contest the 29 August ballot (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 July 2004 and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 30 July 2004). And until last week, the only one who seemed to stand any chance of success was the man perceived as the Kremlin's designated candidate, Chechen Interior Minister Major General Alu Alkhanov. A tall, burly figure with a permanently worried expression, Alkhanov is "a bureaucrat and policeman, not the mixture of politician, father figure, bandit and warlord that his late boss was, and which anyone hoping to pacify Chechnya by force would need to be," "The Economist" observed on 27 August.
As Kadyrov did during his election campaign last summer, Alkhanov too stressed the need to impose "order" and eradicate the last vestiges of Chechen resistance, pledging to wage "an uncompromising struggle against banditry, extremism of all kinds, and corruption," ITAR-TASS reported on 2 August. But Alkhanov has focussed primarily on his hopes for economic revival and transforming Chechnya into "a center of market reform" in the North Caucasus. To that end, he intends to lobby for the creation of a free economic zone. "If political conditions are complemented by proper material infrastructure and a favorable tax regime, our region may well become a major business center," ITAR-TASS quoted him as telling voters in Grozny on 2 August. Alkhanov further promised to create over 150,000 new jobs over the next five years to reduce unemployment. In November 2003, ITAR-TASS quoted Chechnya's Labor Ministry as estimating unemployment at over 70 percent, or 308,000 people of a total workforce of 416,000.
Moscow is apparently ready to help make Alkhanov's vision a reality. The Russian government has agreed to one key request he has made: to place oil extraction in Chechnya wholly under the control of the Chechen government, which would thus be able to use all the profits from the export of that oil to fund local development. Kadyrov had repeatedly lobbied for that privilege, but without success, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" noted on 23 August. Alkhanov predicted that within three-four years it will prove possible to increase oil extraction from the current level of 2 million tons per year to 5 million tons, which would bring budget revenues of 3 billion rubles ($100 million). He also argued that part of that oil should be refined in Chechnya, and new refineries built for that purpose.
The Chechen government has also drafted a new development plan for Chechnya, together with Russia's Economic Development and Trade Ministry, Chechen Prime Minister Sergei Abramov said in Moscow on 2 August following a discussion of the situation in Chechnya with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Alkhanov told members of the Chechen diaspora in Moscow on 18 August that no less than 6 billion rubles annually will be allocated from the federal budget to implement that program. But at the same time he solicited investment in the Chechen economy from wealthy Chechen businessmen living elsewhere in Russia, and announced that if elected, he will invite Chechens from outside the republic to apply for jobs in the government.
But for all of Alkhanov's campaign pledges, one of the few opinion polls conducted in the run-up to the ballot suggests that he is unlikely to win the 50 percent of the vote required for a first-round victory. "Rossiiskie vesti" on 19 August summarized the findings of a poll of 630 Grozny residents conducted in early August, of whom only 38.7 percent said they plan to vote for Alkhanov. No other candidate enjoyed over 7 percent support, and 21.8 percent of those polled declined to reveal for whom they will vote. A poll conducted by the pro-Moscow Chechen Ministry for National Policy, Information, and Foreign Relations that rated support for Alkhanov at 53.5 percent cannot be considered 100 percent objective. It is, however, in line with the prediction made by former Chechen Deputy Prime Minister and rival candidate Abdulla Bugaev, who was quoted on 10 August by "Nezavisimaya gazeta" as saying that civil servants have admitted to him that the voting returns at individual polling stations will be tailored to show that Alkhanov received between 56 and 78 percent of the vote.
Moreover, the apparent endorsement of election candidate Vakha Visaev, a former aide to Kadyrov, by the slain leader's son Ramzan has triggered speculation about a split in the pro-Moscow Chechen leadership. Visaev's campaign posters, which according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 20 August are displayed across the republic, shows him side by side with Ramzan Kadyrov against the background of a larger-than-life portrait of Akhmad-hadji Kadyrov. Ramzan Kadyrov, considered one of the most powerful and feared men in Chechnya on account of the armed guard numbering several thousand men which he commands, told Interfax on 19 August that there is no truth to rumors that he no longer supports Alkhanov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 August 2004). Other senior Chechen officials too, have denied any rift between Alkhanov and the younger Kadyrov.
Russian commentators have suggested that, given widespread popular hatred of Ramzan Kadyrov, few Chechens would cast their ballots for a candidate whom he apparently supports. But conversely, how many might do just that because their fear reprisals on the part of Ramzan's militia if they vote for Alkhanov? The poll cited above estimated voter support for Visaev in early August at just 1.5 percent.
A third possibility is that by backing Visaev, Ramzan Kadyrov is simply reminding Alkhanov that he remains a force to be reckoned with. In his campaign speeches, Alkhanov implicitly criticized the younger Kadyrov's private army. He announced specifically that he plans to stop abductions, which he termed one of the biggest problems facing the Chechen police, and which the so-called "Kadyrovtsy" reportedly engage in with impunity, Interfax reported on 18 August. Alkhanov further warned that "I am categorically against security and law enforcement agencies working in masks. A man serving the law and protecting his people should not cover his face." And on 26 August, Ruslan Alkhanov, who is deputizing for Alu Alkhanov as Interior Minister for the duration of the election campaign, said he has issued a warning that anyone appearing on the street wearing a mask is to be shot (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 August 2004). Those orders are clearly a threat not only to the Chechen resistance, but to those Kadyrovtsy who resort to masks when engaging in illegal activities. (Liz Fuller)