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Russia: Chechen Post-Election Politics Still Evolving

Grozny, 30 January 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The final result of Chechnya's presidential elections will be made public on Sunday, but it is already clear that former separatist chief of staff Aslan Maskhadov will be Chechnya's next president.

The latest preliminary figures given by Chechnya's central electoral commission show Maskhadov with 65 percent of the vote. His main opponent, field commander Shamil Basayev, is second with 24 percent and acting President Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev was third with 10 percent.

The news of Maskhadov's victory produced a generally positive reaction among moderate Moscow politicians. During the pre-electoral campaigns, Moscow made quite clear it favored Maskhadov, who has demonstrated his ability to compromise during many rounds of peace talks with Russian authorities.

Moscow had already declared it would have considered a Basayev presidency unacceptable. Russian authorities consider Basayev a terrorist because of the June 1995 hostage-taking operation in the southern Russian city of Budyonnovsk in which 150 people died.

Commenting on election results at a press conference yesterday, Secretary of the Security Council Ivan Rybkin said federal authorities are likely to declare a general amnesty for all Chechen separatist fighters, except for Basayev and a number of others also considered as terrorists.

Chechen voters seem to have clearly understood Moscow's message, despite declarations made by Chechen politicians and citizens alike that "Moscow's reactions to the Chechen election is Moscow's own problem."

A number of Chechen voters told RFE/RL that on the election day they supported Basayev in their hearts but in their minds they had to choose Maskhadov.

What are the main differences between these two candidates, both professional fighters committed to Chechen independence?

During the electoral campaign, Basayev's supporters were found especially among the young, particularly those who fought against Russian troops in the 21 months of partisan war. Basayev was admired as a fighter and a strategist, for his uncompromising character and his adherance to the ideals of freedom and justice.

But the majority of Chechens clearly had doubts whether Basayev had the necessary political skills to negotiate economic and political deals with the Russians.

Maskhadov demonstrated those skills when he negotiated the August 1996 peace accord. But whether he will be able to win Russia's concessions on Chechnya's independence is not certain. Rybkin and Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov have recently reiterated that Moscow should prevent Chechnya's "succession de facto and de jure" from the Russian federation.

Observers in Chechnya say the start of talks on an eventual power-sharing agreement between Moscow and Grozny, similar to an accord existing with Tatarstan and other subjects of the Russian federation, would produce waves of protests and disillusion in Chechnya.

One Chechen journalist, a former rebel fighter, told RFE/RL: "The inevitable popular disillusion might undermine Maskhadov's current authority." He added that in Chechnya, a country with ancient clan traditions, strong codes of fighters and a huge number of weapons currently in circulation, this could pave the way to the "transfer of power to a new, more resolute leader."

All presidential candidates, including Maskhadov, have said Moscow must not be allowed to question Chechnya's independence, especially in the aftermath of the humiliating final withdrawal of Russian troops. Chechnya, they said, solved the issue in 1991, when it declared independence as a result of a popular referendum.

Two days ago, Maskhadov said at a press conference in Grozny that he is determined to take all necessary steps to obtain the international recognition of Chechnya's independence and sovereignty. Chechen officials and citizens have also expressed hope that economic investment from European and Muslim countries will soon arrive for the reconstruction, irrespective of Russia's position.

It is unclear who will sit in a new separatist goverment. Maskhadov told journalists he would "certainly accept" any offer of cooperation from Basayev. He also said that a special meeting of top military commanders, including Basayev, is to be held shortly to analyze the situation and to decide "who gets what." According to observers in Grozny, such a declaration likely indicates that Basayev may be offered the post of the defense minister, or nothing at all.

Basayev told RFE/RL that he may consider accepting an offer from Maskhadov. But he also said his acceptance is based on the condition that supporters of Doku Zavgayev, the head of Chechnya's former pro-Moscow government, be removed from among Maskhadov's aides. Several observers see this condition as unlikely to be accepted by Maskhadov.

Chechen separatist officials this week said that the post-war situation is a catastrophic and potentially dangerous. The economy is in a shambles. There is no money to pay salaries or to start reconstruction. There is also concern about creating jobs for former rebel fighters, who risk being drawn into crime. Now is the time for action instead of more talks, they said.