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Chechnya: By-Election Seen As Neither Popular Nor Fair

Sunday's election in Chechnya to fill a vacant Duma seat is being portrayed in Moscow as proof that normality has returned to the embattled republic. But RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini, who traveled to neighboring Ingushetia this week, reports that many Chechens are saying the Duma election is not popular and is not likely to be fair.

Sleptsovskoye, Ingushetia; 18 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Amid war, destruction and displacement in camps, Chechens are due Sunday (Aug 20) to choose a deputy to the Russian State Duma in a single by-election. Russian authorities are trying to portray the vote as proof life has returned to normal in the republic -- despite obvious signs to the contrary.

Aleksandr Veshnyakov, the head of the Russian Central Election Commission, yesterday called the coming election a "concrete step toward solving the problems of the suffering Chechen people." He says the vote will also demonstrate the electorate's dissatisfaction with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov.

But none of the Chechens with whom our correspondent spoke this week in neighboring Ingushetia -- many of whom often travel back and forth to Chechnya -- see the election as anything but a Kremlin political maneuver.

In the Soglasiye camp, up to 6,000 refugees are preparing for a second winter under the army tents in the camp. According to Russian officials, on Sunday there will be voting urns in Soglasiye and the other camps in Ingushetia that house some of the estimated 200,000 Chechen refugees who have fled the conflict in their native republic.

One Chechen, whom we'll call Adam, has been living with 13 members of his family in the Soglasiye camp since last November. He says the election is an insult.

"I don't recognize any election, because how can I vote for a deputy today if I live here like cattle and when my people are being destroyed. What should I vote for? Should I vote for a deputy to say -- you are killing us, you are burning our [homes]. And [he] is supposed to be our deputy? Is that the way it's supposed to be? Personally, I don't recognize any Russian election."

Thirteen candidates are running for the Duma seat, all of whom are pro-Russian. Among them are Moscow's likely favorite, Leche Magomadov, a member of the Unity group in the Duma that supports President Vladimir Putin, and Aslambek Aslakhanov, a former Interior Ministry general. Chechnya's anti-Moscow opposition, dismissed as "a bandit government" by the Kremlin, is not represented on the ballot.

The election commission's Veshnyakov says that 495,000 people are registered to vote, of whom 1 percent are Russian soldiers based permanently in the region. The soldiers began voting earlier this week.

But most Chechens with whom RFE/RL spoke in Ingushetia said that only a few days before the vote, few in Chechnya even knew who the candidates were. Until Wednesday (Aug 16), Aslakhanov was the only candidate to seek refugee votes actively. He visited the Sputnik camp, a stone's throw from the Chechen border.

Alikhan -- as he wishes to be identified -- is one of only a few young Chechen men who risk an encounter with Russian military forces by going home regularly to Chechnya.

"I don't even know the candidates. We have other things to think about, you understand, we have other problems. But we have to vote. I know that you have to vote. I go by the little market and see flyers, posters [of candidates]. You can't say that there aren't any at all. On TV, did they mention these things [elections]? I don't know, I didn't hear anything. Until now they haven't [campaigned] on TV, so I don't know anything [about them]."

In any case, campaigning on television in Chechnya these days could hardly be effective. Most TV and radio sets in the republic don't work because of cuts in electricity.

In addition, Chechen women say that their husbands and sons will not risk an encounter with the Russian military simply for a chance to vote. Several Chechens told our correspondent of ongoing so-called "cleansing operations" in the republic, where Russian forces surround a village and then arrest every man under suspicion of helping the separatist rebels.

Even the threat of an odd random bullet or rocket could keep the more civic-minded Chechens at home Sunday. Russian forces, who announced heightened security measures in the republic, admit that three days ago (Aug 15) they were shot at or attacked 29 times. Since the beginning of the month, five pro-Russian Chechen officials have been the targets of assassination attempts.

Another factor that may keep many Chechens from voting could be their difficulties in moving about the republic from their present place of residence to nearby -- or not so nearby -- voting urns. Within Chechnya, many people have left their old homes to take refuge with family members whose homes were spared, or have left the dangerous mountain regions to stay in the safer lowlands.

But roads are being guarded by Russian soldiers who, says a woman who asks not to be identified, demand bribes to let people through. Our correspondent talked with her at the Adler-20 passage point into Chechnya, as she was waiting for one of the unreliable buses to take her into the republic where she goes every week to see her parents.

"It's very difficult to get through, very difficult -- traffic jams, lines, the heat. It's all the more difficult when we have our children with us. It's really an insult to the people. Now the road, the main road [to Grozny] is closed, they say it's because of the election. But they'll let through whomever they want. - [voice in background ] Whoever pays, goes through -- only them. That's why traffic is limited and it's difficult to go from one place to the other."

Given all this, the 60 percent turnout predicted by electoral commission chief Veshnyakov seems far too optimistic. Also, his estimate of almost a half-million eligible voters -- including the military -- appears exaggerated. Chechnya's total pre-war total population was only about 450,000, and today 150,000 refugees in Ingushetia are not registered to vote. Russian authorities can count only on ballots being deposited in the urns that will tour the refugee camps, where some 12,000 are living in tents.

The complications in Sunday's Chechnya election are similar to those in the republic during the Russian presidential election last March. At the time, a delegation from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, had visited the republic before the election. But the OSCE refused to monitor the voting in Chechnya, saying that up-to-standard conditions for voting did not exist in the republic.

Earlier this week, the OSCE said it would not monitor Sunday's either, because of security risks.