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Russia: Tension Mounts Before Chechen Poll

Prague, 22 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - With less than a week to go before presidential and parliamentary elections in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, tension is mounting.

In Moscow, officials are jittery because they fear the outcome could lead to Chechnya's de facto independence. In Chechnya, infighting among the leading candidates is adding to a general mood of apprehension before Monday's poll.

Among the 16 contenders for the presidency is Aslan Maskhadov, the former chief of staff for the separatist troops. He was named interim prime minister after a peace deal was signed with Russia in August.

He resigned to begin an election campaign promising economic pragmatism and a moderate dose of Islam and is now tipped as the front runner in the race. Like all other leading candidates, Maskhadov has called for independence for Chechnya despite a major provision of the peace accord which put the matter on hold for five years.

Less hot-headed than his closest rival Shamil Basayev, Maskhadov is the man clearly favored by Moscow. His recent statements, while forceful, show that he sees negotiations as the best way of achieving recognition of Chechnya's sovereignty.

Basayev, a separatist commander who led a hostage-taking raid into Russia last year, paints a charismatic figure. Hated by Moscow, he is all the more loved by his soldiers for his defiant and uncompromising attitude. His calls for the immediate recognition by Moscow of Chechnya's independence have helped win the support of many young Chechens. Analysts say he may well push Maskhadov into a run-off on election day.

The third main contender is the current president, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev. He took political command last year after the death of the separatists' inspirational leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev. Analysts see him as an outsider in the poll. During the remainder of the war his role was overshadowed by that of the military commanders.

The pre-election campaign has been mainly peaceful so far, although the mood among the candidates has grown increasingly bitter as election day approaches. Across the republic, candidates' posters and portraits have appeared plastered on walls and car windshields. Basayev's supporters have been the most active, organizing a lightning campaign of meetings and television ads. By contrast Maskhadov has led a low key campaign, concentrating instead on meetings with influential people such as village elders.

In addition to the presidential vote, Chechens will also be asked on Monday to choose between the 900 candidates running for 63 seats in the new parliament.

Preparations for the poll are now almost complete. Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OCSE) are already in place. No irregularities have been reported so far. A scheme has been devised to prevent any potential vote rigging. Each voter will be marked with a special ink that cannot be washed off for 24 hours to ensure nobody votes twice.

Despite the smooth running so far, the potential for a slide back into violence remains. Russian Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov sounded a dark warning last week when he said Russia could intervene militarily if any ethnic Russians living in Chechnya come under attack.

This will be seen as highly cynical to those few who remain. Ethnic Russians made up about a third of the population before the war. They have suffered greatly in the two years of fighting. Many died. Others fled. Those who are left are elderly and poor. Attacks on ethnic Russians have increased recently and more violence is feared if the Chechens elect a militant leader such as Basayev.

Whoever wins the thorny issue of independence will almost certainly continue to dominate political life. Meanwhile, life for ordinary Chechens in the devastated towns and countryside shows little sign of improvement.