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Russia: Chechens Prepare For Election Two Years After Intervention

Moscow, 10 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - Tomorrow marks the second anniversary of Moscow's decision to send troops to quell Chechnya's independence bid. But as Chechnya gears up for next month's presidential and parliamentary elections, the anniversary only highlights how little the intervention achieved.

On December 11, 1994, Russian President Boris Yeltsin ordered troops into the breakaway republic for an operation he said would last for 24 hours. They stayed for two years, costing the lives of tens of thousands of people. Last month, Yeltsin signed a decree ordering the last two regiments to withdraw from Chechnya before the republic's elections scheduled for January 27.

Many deputies in the communist-dominated Duma have fiercely attacked the decision to withdraw all troops from the Caucasus republic, saying it amounts to de facto recognition of Chechen independence. Under the peace agreement signed in August of this year, a decision on Chechnya's political status is to be delayed until 2001.

So far, 19 presidential candidates have thrown their hats into the ring. While their election platforms may differ, nearly all agree on one thing -- that Chechnya must be a sovereign state.

Most observers see Aslan Maskhadov, who currently serves as prime minister of the self-declared Chechen government, as the most serious contender. He held off announcing his decision to run until last week, but he has already collected more than 50,000 signatures in support of his candidacy. Presidential hopefuls must collect no less than 10,000 signatures by December 27 in order to get on the ballot.

Maskhadov is widely regarded as the most moderate candidate, and is said to be backed by both supporters and opponents of independence. Maskhadov would also be a welcome partner in the Kremlin, which regards him as a pragmatic politician open to compromise.

Maskhadov has invited fellow contender Vakha Arsanov, who is the field commander for northwest Chechnya, to run on a joint ticket, with Arsanov serving in the post of vice president. On Saturday, a congress of the Chechen Party of National Independence will meet to decide formally on the joint ticket. Arsanov has already collected more than 10,000 signatures to suport his presidential bid.

Other serious contenders include: current Chechen leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev; his advisor for national security, Aslan Zakayev; Chechnya's first deputy prime minister Movladi Udugov; and commander Shamil Basayev, who led the hostage-taking incident in Budyonnovsk last year.

Basayev is believed to be highly popular, particularly among fighters and Chechen nationalists. His electoral platform emphasizes the fight against crime, which is thought to appeal to a wide section of the population frustrated with the growing criminal activites of former fighters. But many believe his support may be weakened by voters who fear that a Basayev presidency would almost certainly lead to renewed confrontation with Moscow.

To the surprise of some, the candidacy of current Chechen leader Yandarbiyev has generated little enthusiasm. He is seen as more of an intellectual and ideologist than a politician.

Yandarbiyev has also asked for the Chechen elections to be postponed for up to two months in order to ensure the poll is better organized. His call for a delay came after a meeting last week with Russian human rights activist Sergei Kovalyov, who has also said the elections should be put off.

Kovalyov said over the weekend that the elections risked being branded illegitimate if they were organized too quickly. He said there was not enough time to draw up voter lists or organize absentee voting for the thousands of people who were forced to flee Chechnya because of the war.

But Russia's Security Chief Ivan Rybkin has pushed for the elections to go ahead. Last week, he announced that the estimated 350,000 civilians who fled the fighting would be allowed to vote. Many fled to neighboring regions of Dagestan, Ingushetia and Stavropolsky Krai. Others took refuge in various cities in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

Rybkin said he had discuss setting up polling stations in several Russian cities such as Volgograd, Astrakhan, and Voronezh. But he did not give details about how the voting would be organized. Some observers have expressed concern that absentee balloting will be difficult because many refugees do not have the necessary papers to prove they lived in Chechnya before the war began.

While some, like Kovalyov, think the election could be a farce because of lack of time, others believe the sheer number of candidates for president risks making the election look like a circus. Some observers have wondered why the Chechens have failed to unite around fewer candidates, and whether top representatives of the Chechen government are running for the sake of appearances.

For his part, Maskhadov has said: "When there is one candidate, it means that there are no elections, therefore there should be more (candidates)."

Udugov, in an interview on RFE/RL's Liberty Live program last night, denied that he and other Chechen leaders are participating in the electoral campaign in order to make it look democratic. But he said he believed Maskhadov would win. Udugov added that, regardless of who wins, the leadership is united in its support of Chechnya's sovereignty and independence.