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Russia: Chechnya Election Campaign Intensifies

Grozny, 24 January 1997 (NCA) - The Chechen electoral campaign is in full swing.

Yesterday, acting separatist president Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev spoke at a rally in Grozny. He used the occasion to honor the memory of former President Dzhokhar Dudayev, asserting that he, Yandarbiyev, is the heir of the slain leader. This was to improve Yandarbiyev's electoral standing.

Dudayev was killed in a Russian air raid in April of last year. Yandarbiyev formally renamed the Chechen capital Dzhokhar-Ghala (Dzhokhar City) and conferred on Dudayev the posthumous title of Chechen Generalissimo. But an RFE/RL correspondent says that few people interviewed yesterday in Grozny seemed to know about Yandarbiyev's actions. Several people said they did not approve of them.

Attending the rally field commander Salman Raduyev, the one who led the Chechen hostage taking at Pervomaysk last year, said again that Dudayev is still alive and no presidential election is, in principle, needed. But he also said that in the current contest people should vote for Yandarbiyev. The rally was attended by several thousand Chechens from the capital and countryside, some carrying banners reading "Dudayev Will Be Remembered Forever" and "Chechnya is a Subject of Allah."

Public opinion polls in Grozny show that support for the acting president is lower than that enjoyed his main rivals, self-declared Prime Minister Aslan Maskhadov, and field commander Shamil Basayev. But the polls there are hardly reliable.

Mashkadov is said to be particularly popular in Grozny and in other bigger towns, as well as in the north of Chechnya. Basayev is reported to be strong among former separatist fighters and in his southern native mountainous regions. But none of the candidates is expected to reach the required 50 percent to be elected and a second round of elections may take place sometime next month.

Sixteen presidential candidates will participate in Monday's election. Besides Maskhadov, Yandarbiyev and Basayev, the most visible are self-declared deputy prime minister Movladi Udugov, and culture minister Akhmed Zakayev. Both of them frequently appear on Chechnya's independent television.

Zakayev, a former actor, is considered by some to be too intellectual. Udugov, whose talent as a separatist spokesman during the conflict remains indisputable, has failed to revealed the financial sources of his campaign and this may affect his popularity.

Chechens want a chance to rebuild their country and strengthen its economy. In the eyes of many Maskhadov and Basayev are the only candidates having the necessary standing and strength to either negotiate -- Maskhadov -- or oblige -- Basayev -- Russia to accept those wishes.

All candidates say they are ready to cooperate with each other after the election, and that no civil war will take place in post-election Chechnya.

And so, the electoral campaign in Chechnya continues. There has been little or no disturbances in the process. Security measures have been enforced in the capital in the last few days. Frequent armed patrols checking vehicles are visible, mainly at night.

Maskhadov and Basayev appeared today at two separate press conferences. Both said they are certain to win in the first round of voting on Monday. Maskhadov said he wants to create a "Chechen Islamic state." Basayev said he wants to be the president of a state based on Chechen traditions -- but without Islamic connotations for which, he said, Chechnya is not ready. Basayev has tried to modify his image from that of a fighter to a politician.

Basayev led the hostage-taking operation in southern Russian city of Buddenovsk in June, 1995. A criminal case for terrorism is still open against him in Russia, but several Russian legislators recently said a general amnesty, including Basayev, should be declared for all former Chechen fighters wanted by Russia's security organs.

Maskhadov said that, if elected, negotiations with Russia will continue in order to ensure that economic agreements, including the transfer of Caspian oil through Chechnya, become reality. Such agreements are crucial if Chechnya's economy is to improve.