Russia insists that Chechen civilians will be able to vote for president on Sunday just like any other Russian citizens. But an OSCE mission says the republic is not at all prepared for elections. And half the Chechens have fled to Ingushetia, where it is unclear how they will be able to vote. Correspondents Sophie Lambroschini and Floriana Fossato report.
Moscow, 23 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russia seems determined to use the election on Sunday to prove that life is normal in what it calls "liberated" Chechnya.
Central Electoral Commission head Aleksandr Veshnyakov says that Chechens see the vote "like a celebration, the celebration of feeling yourself a full-fledged citizen of Russia." He said everything is ready for voting at over 300 polling stations in Chechnya.
But the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE, says standard conditions for elections do not exist in Chechnya. An OSCE team that visited Chechnya this week said campaigning has been almost nonexistent, and that the people have had very limited access to news media. It said voter intimidation cannot be ruled out. Meanwhile, almost half the population of Chechnya is still displaced.
Chechen Foreign Minister Ilyas Akhmadov told RFE/RL he finds the decision to go forward with the election under these conditions outrageous. But he said he will not blame any Chechens living under Russian control who choose to vote.
"I am outraged at the very thought of this. It's unacceptable. It's anything but a solution. But you know, when you are facing very little choice -- when it's this or that, the filtration camps or the elections -- you have to do it. You are totally in their hands. Personally, I do not judge the people who will vote. They are in the grip of the Russian military machine."
Dzhamal Mezhidov is the deputy head of the electoral commission for Chechnya, based in Gudermes. He tells RFE/RL that the only campaigning has been for Putin.
"You know, the only more or less active campaigning here is for Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin as presidential candidate. No other presidential candidate's representative came here. Maybe they will still come here today or tomorrow? And we only have two channels working here. Apart from the first channel [ORT], there's RTR."
While those two television channels do air the free commercials for all candidates, they are both state-controlled and are strongly biased in favor of Putin.
Just a few days ahead of election day, the number of people able to vote in Chechnya is still unclear. The OSCE estimates the number of eligible voters at about 460,000, including military personnel. But election commission officials could not say how many military personnel will be voting in Chechnya.
The entire population of Chechnya before the start of the war was estimated at some 450,000 people, and more than 200,000 of them are now living in Ingushetia, where they fled the Russian onslaught. Many people lost their identification documents in the bombings, and it is unclear how electoral officials will deal with that.
Electoral officials give conflicting information on where and how the displaced Chechens are to vote. The Central Electoral Commission for all of Russia says special polling stations are being set up for them in Ingushetia, but the Ingush electoral commission says refugees will have to show up at regular Ingush polling stations if they wish to vote.
Madina Parizhova is the executive secretary of the Ingush electoral commission in Nazran. She told RFE/RL that she has no voter registration lists for the Chechen refugees.
"The Chechen refugees in Ingush camps will vote at the nearest Ingush polling station. I don't know how many voters there are [among the refugees], but according to the Migration Service there are 250,000 refugees. And among the original Ingush citizens there are 110,500 voters."
Ingush President Ruslan Aushev sent a telegram to Putin on Monday, complaining that the Russian government has not given the displaced Chechens enough food, much less prepared them for any kind of democratic exercise.
Russian government promises of financial relief have not been fulfilled, Aushev said. He said his republic cannot support the burden, and that most refugees are surviving only on humanitarian help from international organizations.
Even after the vote, counting the ballots in Chechnya could be difficult. Central Electoral Commission head Veshnyakov says Chechen ballot boxes will not be brought to Chechnya's central electoral commission in Gudermes until 27 March, because it is too dangerous to transport the ballots at night.
"The electoral commission shouldn't go around transporting the documents during the night. The nights here are not as calm as in other regions and republics of the Russian Federation. So we don't recommend carrying the documents at night."
The Central Electoral Commission in Moscow told our correspondent that all votes cast in Chechnya will be counted together -- including votes from Russian soldiers and from Chechen civilians. Polling for some military units has already begun.
As the election officials say they do not know how many soldiers are registered to vote, it will be difficult to determine how many Chechen civilians voted.
(Correspondent Roland Eggleston in Vienna contributed to this report.)