Moscow, 29 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Chechnya's legislative elections should have taken place two years ago, but they were postponed several times for fear separatist rebels may disrupt the vote.
The poll, however, passed without violence. Officials have hailed the vote as a sign that things are returning to normal in the restive republic.
The head of the federal Central Election Commission, Alexandr Veshnyakov, said he was on the whole satisfied with the vote. Russian President Vladimir Putin said it was a vital step forward in reestablishing order in Chechnya.
According to the Chechen election commission, preliminary results show that the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party garnered more than 60 percent of the vote. The Communist Party so far comes a distant second with 12 percent, followed by the liberal Union of Rightist Forces, with almost 11 percent.
The Kremlin-backed Chechen president, Alu Alkhanov, was perhaps the most restrained in his praise of the poll, which he admitted fell short of "ideal" democratic standards. "What's important," he told a news conference in the Chechen capital, Grozny, "is that we are moving toward democracy."
Russian human rights groups don't agree. They presented a united front before the poll by refusing to send election observers.
Memorial, a group that closely monitors human rights abuses in Chechnya, is one of those groups.
Shakhman Agbulatov, a Memorial activist in neighboring Ingushetia, told RFE/RL's Russian Service that Chechnya is not yet ready for fair elections.
"Conditions in Chechnya do not allow a normal vote," Agbulatov said. "Free and fair elections cannot take place in conditions of ongoing war and military operations, of continuing abductions of people, beatings, torture, arbitrary executions, in an atmosphere of fear and violence."
The war in Chechnya has claimed lives on both sides on a daily basis since Putin sent federal troops to stamp out separatism in 1999. From the beginning of the Kremlin's first campaign against separatist rebels in 1994, an estimated 100,000 civilians, soldiers, and rebels have died in Chechnya.
Rights groups say thousands of civilians are tortured and abducted every year both by rebels and by the militia headed by Ramzan Kadyrov, the son of slain Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov.
The fact that the Kremlin-backed Kadyrov wields huge power in the republic and is likely to become Chechnya's next president next year has further discouraged human rights groups.
Lev Ponomarev, the executive director of the All-Russian Movement For Human Rights, said his organization will consistently shun elections in Chechnya until all sides of the conflict are represented.
"There is a dictatorship of Kadyrov now in Chechnya. Even those in favor of a union with Russia still have to support Kadyrov, or leave the political stage," Ponomarev said. "I am not even talking about the real political opponents, who cannot in principle express their opinion. We consider that the war can be stopped only if supporters of separatism in Chechnya are given the opportunity of taking part in the political life of the country. Then they won't take up arms."
The Moscow Helsinki Group, another prominent rights organization, also boycotted the Chechen poll.
Lyudmila Alekseeva, a veteran human rights campaigner who heads the organization, said she sees "no point" in monitoring the election. She said every poll that her organization has observed in Chechnya has been rigged and that the 27 November vote was very unlikely no exception.
And the skepticism of human rights groups towards the election, she said, reflects public opinion in Russia.
"It's already clear to us that there are no more elections in our country. It is a kind of decoration, like in Soviet times," Alekseeva said. "Russian citizens who take even a minimal interest in the issue of elections understood this a long time ago, and not only among the emancipated, intellectual public. Just ask anyone, they will say: 'Nothing depends on us.' Elections have become a fiction."
Despite the boycott, rights groups have not been particularly vocal in criticizing the legislative poll in Chechnya.
Instead, rights campaigners say they have directed their efforts toward fighting a federal draft law aimed at tightening state control over nongovernmental organizations, including human rights groups.
They have also been busy monitoring the campaign ahead of Moscow's City Duma elections, scheduled for 4 December.
Some international organizations have other reasons for not monitoring the poll. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) didn't send observers to Chechnya, since it only monitors polls after receiving invitations from the country's authorities and doesn't monitor regional elections.
This leaves the voting process almost unmonitored. Those who did witness the poll had some criticism.
Andreas Gross, the head of a delegation of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, who went on a fact-finding mission to Chechnya, said he had found people "full of fear."
"And when you are full of fear," he added, "it is difficult to elect a parliament."