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Chechnya: And Then There Was One -- Kadyrov's Rivals Drop Out Of Presidential Race

Two of the last three serious contenders for Chechnya's October presidential elections were taken out of the race yesterday. Aslanbek Aslakhanov, a Duma deputy from Chechnya, withdrew to accept an invitation to serve as an adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Malik Saidullayev, an influential businessman, was removed from the race for procedural irregularities. Their removal effectively clears the path for Kremlin favorite Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, the current head of Chechnya's Moscow-backed administration.

Moscow, 12 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- With three weeks to go until Chechnya's presidential election, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov -- the head of the republic's Moscow-backed administration -- looks set to win an easy victory. With several serious contenders for the race now off the list for the 5 October vote, Kadyrov will face only minor figures on Chechnya's complex and violence-ridden political stage.

The last of Kadyrov's electoral rivals were removed from the race yesterday -- Russian Duma Deputy Aslanbek Aslakhanov and entrepreneur Malik Saidullayev. A third contender, businessman Khusein Jabrailov, withdrew from the race last week. Observers say the race is now so uneven it will compromise the vote's integrity.

Rustam Kaliyev, a Chechen journalist, told RFE/RL that "an illegitimate election will further alienate the Chechen population that is trying to believe in the vote."

"I have to say that a majority of Chechens [seem] to be very serious about taking part in the elections. Maybe it's because it's been so long since we have any real authorities here, or maybe it's because there's an opportunity to change something in the leadership of the republic."

But, Kaliyev adds, the steady elimination of all of Kadyrov's serious rivals will "make people feel that they've been deceived once again," and will also "increase their feeling of hopelessness." Some observers are particularly disturbed by the removal of Malik Saidullayev from the election list -- allegedly because of "irregularities" in a large portion of the signatures on his qualification petitions. Khasan Atayev is a deputy of the now-defunct Chechen parliament elected in 1997, and an opponent of the republic's rebel movement. He lambastes yesterday's decision by Chechnya's Supreme Court as "manipulated." "I'm sure it was ordered [from above] -- I don't know by whom -- to pull this candidate out of the race."

Saidullayev plans to appeal his removal before Russia's Supreme Court. But both Aslakhanov and Jabrailov -- both of whom were considered to run a significant chance of winning the election -- deny they were pressured into withdrawing. Jabrailov said he withdrew in order to avoid "discord" among local factions. Aslakhanov removed himself from the race after being offered a position as an adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Russia's southern administrative region. And in an interview last week with RFE/RL's Russian Service, he said advice he received from another popular Chechen politician, Ruslan Khasbulatov, had made him wary of running against the Kremlin's man.

"[Khasbulatov] said, 'You know what kinds of conditions the federal authorities can create for a candidate elected against their will -- they'll fail to pay pensions, they'll switch off water, electricity. So what would [one] do then?' And I said, 'You know, Ruslan, I feel the same way. What if they elect me? How can I work out [good] relations with the center?'"

Kadyrov, presumably, will have less trouble "working out" relations with the center. But while he is well-regarded by the Kremlin, he is hated by Chechnya's insurgents. And this, says Khasan Atayev, leads him to fear that things in Chechnya are about to get even worse.

"If [the Kremlin] has even a fraction of pity for [Chechens], they have to give way for someone who is not mixed up with anyone, someone the people can trust," Atayev said. "It has to be a candidate -- be it Saidullayev or someone else -- who is not already implicated [in the four-year war with Russia], so that the 'forest brothers' (the insurgents) have someone to talk to. They will never talk to Kadyrov. But if you don't come to an agreement with them, there will not be peace."

But Kadyrov's victory seems virtually assured. Since his Kremlin-supported appointment three years ago, Kadyrov has steadily built up his power in the region, placing the courts and other influential institutions under his control. Most recently, he seized control of Chechnya's media by sending troops to take over the Grozny television and radio station from Press Minister Bislan Gantamirov.

Kadyrov has also reportedly built up a personal army of fighters recruited from former separatist troops. These men, who are believed to operate under the command of Kadyrov's son, Ramzan -- allegedly torture or kill anyone who poses a threat to Kadyrov's authority. Saidullayev has accused Ramzan Kadyrov's men of torturing one of his assistants for four days straight.

Kaliyev says the problem has become so severe that "Kadyrovtsy" -- literally, "Kadyrov's men" -- has come to be used as a popular term for thugs and criminals in general. Even so, he adds, Chechnya's criminal landscape is so diverse that it is difficult to determine the true allegiance of many groups operating in Chechnya.

The pervasive violence, Kaliyev says, has also had a debilitating impact on Chechnya's presidential campaign, reducing most political advertising to a few posters and graffiti scribbled hastily on the walls of ruined buildings.

"There are a lot of trucks and buses on the street with portraits of one or another candidate," he said. "But [I heard] remarks from locals who say that it is very dangerous to carry a portrait of Malik Saidullayev in Chechnya -- that unidentified people beat up one driver, and took the portrait off his vehicle. There are many such violent moments marking the election campaign."

Ella Pamfilova, the head of Russia's presidential commission on human rights, has protested a proposal to have Ramzan Kadyrov's troops guarding polling stations on election day, saying they will intimidate voters. She has suggested that either federal forces or Chechen Interior Ministry troops be assigned to the task instead.

Kaliyev says that in the end, regardless of the outcome, it will once again be the local citizens who will suffer the consequences. "There are armed groups supporting some of the candidates who have been removed from the race," he says. "What if they unleash a war with Kadyrov?"