Prague, 26 July 2004 -- Chechnya's presidential election was never going to be a cliffhanger.
The Kremlin for weeks has made it clear that it is backing the republic's interior minister, Alu Alkhanov, to succeed the assassinated Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov.
But the poll is now set to be even less of a contest. Chechnya's Election Commission last week eliminated from the race Alkhanov's main challenger, Moscow-based businessman Malik Saidullaev.
The decision came one day before registration was formally closed on 23 July.
It is not the first time the electoral body has stood between Saidullaev and his political aspirations. He tried to run for president last October, but was eliminated from that ballot by election commissioners who cast doubt about the authenticity of signatures on his list of supporters.
This time, a minor discrepancy on Saidullaev's passport was cited as a reason for his disqualification.
The ruling strikes some as deeply ironic. Aslan Doukaev, the director of RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, said Alkhanov himself has a misprint in his own passport -- his first name is spelled "Ali," instead of the correct "Alu." In his case, however, the Election Commission has chosen to overlook the error.
To journalist Konstantin Kazenin, who covers the Caucasus for the Moscow-based Regnum news agency, Saidullaev's elimination from the ballot is a sign that the Kremlin wants to guarantee a certain outcome in the August vote.
Moscow does not have a problem with Saidullaev's politics. But at a time of growing instability in Chechnya, Kremlin leaders want to put their support behind a candidate with proven influence in the war-torn republic.
"It probably can be explained this way: Of course, Saidullaev as a candidate was completely pro-Moscow in his orientation," Kazenin said. "And the last elections, in October, showed that Saidullaev had the most serious financial resources, compared to the other candidates. But they also showed that he does not have a clear, structured support base within Chechnya itself."
Alkhanov lacks the charisma of Kadyrov, who was assassinated in May. But Alkhanov was his loyal interior minister, and can therefore be expected to be very familiar with Kadyrov's power network.
Alkhanov lacks the charisma of Kadyrov, who was assassinated in May. But Alkhanov was his loyal interior minister, and can therefore be expected to be very familiar with Kadyrov's power network of local politicians and militias that have remained in place across the republic.
Kazenin said he believes the Kremlin is hoping that if Alkhanov assumes the presidency, he will be able to use this network to prevent any further deterioration of the situation in Chechnya.
"As a person, of course, Alkhanov strongly differs from Kadyrov, but he will be forced -- above all -- to make use of Kadyrov's resources," Kazenin said. "And I mean not just his militia, but the structures put in place by Kadyrov at the local level, such as the regional heads appointed by Kadyrov -- this is a key support mechanism. Alkhanov will need to use this network. As interior minister he was seen as loyal to Kadyrov, so he is not likely to alter the power structure much. So the differences in personalities [between Kadyrov and Alkhanov] will not have much impact."
Alkhanov has a long record of loyalty to Moscow. In 1991, when Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudaev declared his republic's independence, Alkhanov sided with the Kremlin. As a reward, he was appointed to head the transport police in the pro-Moscow Chechen administration during the first Chechen war, in 1995.
When the first war ended and Russian federal forces pulled out, Alkhanov obtained a job with the transport police in Russia's Rostov region. He returned to Chechnya at the beginning of Moscow's second war in 1999.
What remains unclear if Alkhanov wins the presidency, as widely expected, is what role Akhmad Kadyrov's son Ramzan will play.
The Chechen Constitution requires the president to be at least 30 years old to run, which barred the 27-year-old Ramzan from contesting the vote. But he still controls his father's feared security force. Will Ramzan Kadyrov place control of the militia in Alkhanov's hands, or will a conflict ensue? Only time will tell.
As for the other candidates in the poll, they include Umar Abuev, director of a local oil company; Magomed Aidamirov, a local entrepreneur; Mukhmud-Khasan Asakov, a government employee; Abdulla Bugaev, a teacher, Vakha Visaev, a current presidential adviser and Movsur Khamidov, an employee of the local chapter of the Federal Security Service (FSB).
Analysts rate their chances as extremely slight.
(RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report.)