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Russia: Chechens Hope For Improvement; Russians Blame Moscow For War

Grozny, 27 January 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Madina leaves home early in the morning to walk to one of the many small markets among the ruins of the devastated Chechen capital, Grozny.

The family car was destroyed when their house in central Grozny was bombed last August. So Madina and elder son Aslan carry huge bags full of goods they bought from traders whose trucks come in daily from neighboring Russian regions with all sorts of food products and other items.

"Before the war," she says, "I had a good job in a factory that is now a piece of rubble in this wasteland. Now, the small income I manage to bring back from selling my goods has become the main source of income for my family."

According to Madina, some 70 percent of Grozny's population makes a living in this way, selling mainly to villagers coming daily to the Chechen capital for food and goods.

Madina, like the majority of Chechen women, and particularly those busy with trade activities, plan to vote for Prime Minister Aslan Maskhadov in today's presidential election. Maskhadov is "a strong and calm person who demonstrated the ability to fight and to negotiate with everybody, including Russian authorities, without giving up on the Chechen's independence ideals."

But both her eldest son and daugher say they prefer another leading candidate, field commander Shamil Basayev, who led the hostage-taking operation in the southern Russian city of Budyenovsk in 1995 and is wanted by Russian authorities for terrorism.

Although they never participated in fighting, they share the opinion of many former separatist fighters and of many other young Chechens that Basayev, if elected, would be a much more resolute figure than Maskhadov. They say that "he would be able to guarantee order in Chechnya and obtain financial compensation for the damages of war from Russia."

Madina's husband, Madomed, still works at what is left of Grozny's main factory. It used to produce building machinery and once was one of the biggest factories in the Soviet Caucasus.

Madomed was paid a full salary for the last time in July of last year. Since then, she says, "he received money twice, some $200 altogether."

Madina's three sons and one daughter still go to school "quite regularly," she says. The main problem is that as a result of the conflict, a majority of teachers, traditionally considered part of Chechnya's intellectual force, have fled. Her children say there are practically no teachers of English left, since the great majority of them were Russian.

And Aslan, who enrolled in a business management program at Grozny's university, says lessons now take place at the canteen, one of the few university buildings still standing. But, he says,"it makes no sense to study how a computer works if you cannot even see one."

Chechen families in Grozny say everyday life has changed for the better since separatist fighters took control of the city last August. As defeated Russian troops left, people started believing that the 21-month war was finally over. People first began making rudimentary repairs to the few possessions and the little infrastructure left.

Energy workers and volunteers have worked for months without pay to guarantee the city electricity and heating in the winter months. Still, few flats in Grozny now have water.

"We know that it will take a long time for Grozny to become a normal town again," says Madina. "But now we can at least hope."

Chechens say people now want jobs, salaries, political stability and protection from widespread banditry.

The financial cost of fulfilling the separatists' hope of rebuilding Chechnya's economy and infrastructure, the majority of which is now in ruins, is for the moment not measurable in financial terms.

Walking in the muddy wasteland that is now the center of Grozny, a vast area which was first bombed by Russian planes and artillery then bulldozed flat when fighting ended, one can hardly imagine the adminstration building, hotels, houses, bridges and a big fountain which once stood there.

But Chechens rally in support of their candidates, meet, and pray there. Some of the people who fled the city in the August fight have returned to live in what is left of their looted flats. In other cases, people who lost their homes in the countryside simply moved into abandoned flats.

A few hundred meters from the center, among the ruins of the only Russian Orthodox church in Grozny, some elderly Russians live. The church was blown to pieces early in the conflict.

Some 300,000 Russians, along with 1 million Chechens, lived in the republic before 1991, when Chechnya unilaterally declared itself independent. The majority of Russians have now fled, and the number of those who remain is not known.

For today's Russian population in Grozny -- mostly old people who were too poor to flee and had nowhere to go in Russia anyway -- the last months of peace have left mixed feelings. The shooting has stopped, but the retreat of Russian troops and of pro-Russian authorities has left them with no illusions about the future and often at the mercy of petty criminals.

Maria and Natasha are carrying water from the street to the church. They say they are afraid of staying in their homes after one old Russian neighbor was recently shot dead in her apartment by unknown assailants. The murderers must have left empty handed, they say, since "she had absolutely nothing to take."

In the current unclear pre-electoral situation, there is almost no police force willing to investigate such cases and no one expects the murderers to be found and punished.

Maria says that in addition to such dangers, old Russians are especially vulnerable to the hopeless poverty caused by the conflict. She says Chechen civilians suffered equally and in many cases much more during the war, but they usually have relatives that, following the Chechen tradition, provide them with food and shelter. "We have no one and we don't expect anyone to help us," she says.

According to the two women, the majority of elderly Russians usually beg on the streets near Grozny's central market, look through a rubbish pit for food, then go to stay together in the church ruins.

"These elections are not for us," they say. "We don't care about Chechen presidential candidates and for sure they don't care about us."

"Why did the Kremlin send troops to Chechnya?" they ask. "This war has ruined our lives too."