Prague, 25 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- President Putin may call it "normalization" but normal it most certainly is not.
Chechnya's parliamentary poll, the first in the republic since 1997, before the start of the second Chechen war, takes place against a backdrop of bombings, rebel attacks, kidnappings, and disappearances that almost invariably remain unaccounted for.
Reliable figures are almost impossible to obtain, but it is clear that a large section of the population that survived the massive violence of the last 12 years has left -- perhaps never to return. Grozny, the ruined capital of Chechnya, remains more a monument to willful destruction than a living city.
Oleg Orlov of the Russian human rights organization Memorial blames the Russian government for the terror in Chechnya and questions whether it is fit to hold elections in the republic.
"The mounting terror in Chechnya is, of course, state terror. You have to understand that the people of the Chechen Republic are now frightened and suffering from state terror at the hands of the same people who are organizing and conducting these so-called elections in the Chechen Republic," Orlov said.
Chechen President Alu Alikhanov has promised to increase security across the republic by deploying an additional 17,000 police officers during the vote. But it is not so much the risk of violence on the day that appears to alarm most Chechens as much their sense of powerlessness before the security forces and private armies of local warlords.
Take the story of Zulai Abubakarova, who hasn't seen her 25-year-old son, Aslan, since the night of 14th October 2004, when masked Russian troops drew up at her home in the small Chechen town of Achkhoi-Martan in two armored personnel carriers and three jeeps. It was 2.45 in the morning.
"If only I knew where they took him, if only I knew whether he is alive or dead. And if he's dead, if I could just find his body," Abubakarova said. "If he's guilty of something, let them sentence him to 20 years. I'd sign the sentence myself. But I just want to know, what is he guilty of? There are many like me in Achkhoi-Martan and all over Chechnya. Now we've got elections coming and they're talking about normalization. But no one is telling us mothers that they're going to look for our sons."
Real power in Chechnya is believed to be in the hands of Ramzan Kadyrov, the 28-year-old son of the former president of the republic, Akhmad-hadji Kadyrov, who was assassinated last year. Human rights organizations have accused his presidential guard of the arbitrary abduction, torture, and killing of Chechen civilians.
Perhaps it is little wonder then that so many ordinary Chechens regard Sunday's elections with weary skepticism --especially in what they say is a permanent state of military alert.
Many Chechens tired of the fighting that has ruined their lives and want merely a chance to live in peace. There appears little faith though that these elections will deliver.
On the surface, it all appears impressive enough: 106 candidates are running on party lists for half the places in the 40-seat lower house or People's Assembly. Another 161 will contest the remainder in single-mandate constituencies. A further 90 candidates will also compete in single-mandate constituencies for the 18 seats in the upper chamber, the Council of the Republic.
But, as in so many elections in the post-Soviet space, it is not the form that is the problem but the content. Even before Chechnya goes to the polls, the Russian newspaper "Nezavisimaya Gazeta" is already describing the new legislature as "the Ramzan parliament." There are few, it seems, who believe the vote will do anything other than institutionalize the runaway power of Ramzan Kadyrov.