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Russia: Little Seen As 'Normal' In Presidential Vote In Chechnya (Part 1)

Chechens are due to head to the polls on Sunday (5 October) to vote for a new president. The election has been touted by Moscow as proof the situation in the war-torn republic is "normalizing." But the race has been dominated by a single candidate - the Kremlin's hand-picked favorite, acting Chechen President Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov. In a region racked by four years of war and with the election of Kadyrov virtually assured, many say the situation in Chechnya is anything but normal.

Moscow, 3 October 2003 (RFE/RL) Just days before a presidential vote the Kremlin says will put Chechnya back on the path to normalcy, a Moscow theater blocked the screening of a Chechen documentary film festival as "politically unacceptable."

One of the selected documentaries showed empty streets in Chechnya on the day the republic reportedly saw 90 percent turnout at a referendum last March approving a constitution declaring Chechnya as an "inseparable part" of Russia. And many have doubts about the legitimacy of this Sunday's vote as well.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, Yurii Khanzhin, a Chechen political scientist, described the weekend election as a "farce," given the living conditions in the war-ravaged republic. "Chechnya is occupied. Most of its population has been driven out. A significant number are dead. The towns have been ravaged. There's no industry, no trade, no normal economy, no real public or political life," he said. "[The election] is just an attempt to give a legal form to the existing military regime in Chechnya."

In such circumstances, Khanzhin said, "real elections are impossible." Most Chechens appear to agree. A survey conducted last week by Validata, one of the few polling agencies working in the region, found that 69 percent of the population expects the election not to be fair.

The 5 October vote promises to be a one-man show starring the Moscow-appointed head of the Chechen administration, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov. The 52-year-old former separatist and mufti is the only serious contender after his main rivals dropped out of the race one by one.

Russia's Supreme Court last week upheld the removal of candidate Malik Saidullaev, an influential Chechen businessman, over procedural irregularities. Aslanbek Aslakhanov, a Duma deputy from Chechnya, withdrew from the race last month, citing among his reasons "the impossibility of conducting a normal election campaign." He also accepted an invitation to serve as an adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Businessman Khusein Dzhabrailov and Ruslan Khasbulatov, the former speaker of the Russian Supreme Soviet, also withdrew from the race.

The five potential rivals that remain are seen as either long-shot candidates or behind-the-scenes supporters of Kadyrov. The Kremlin has consistently denied placing its support behind Kadyrov or any other candidate. But the acting Chechen president is the only contender to be broadcast on Russian television in the company of President Putin. The Russian president also included Kadyrov in his entourage during his trip to New York last week.

The presidential election appears to be part of a wider Kremlin strategy to portray the situation in Chechnya as returning to normal. With Russia looking ahead to its own parliamentary and presidential elections, the Kremlin is eager to convince voters that the four-year war in Chechnya is in its final days.

On the ground, however, the war is still a daily reality. Some 80,000 Chechen refugees remain in neighboring Ingushetia, living in tent camps or makeshift houses, despite assurances from Moscow it is safe to return home. In Chechnya, residents say fear for their personal safety is their main concern, ahead of elections, work, or housing.

The Kremlin's claim of "normalization" may ring hollow for many in the republic, where last week's Validata poll showed 70 percent of Chechens surveyed saying they see Russian forces as the republic's main security risk. At least 30,000 federal forces will be among the 545,000 eligible voters the Chechen Electoral Commission says will be casting their ballots on 5 October. That number may be inflated -- the Danish Refugee Council has put the total Chechen electorate at just 200,000.

The polling agency's director, Sergei Khaikin, said Kadyrov's victory appeared solid once it became clear last week that Malik Saidullaev, Kadyrov's strongest potential rival, was locked out of the race. "In mid-September, Kadyrov had 31 percent of the vote among those whose said they would vote. Now he has 48 percent," he said.

The Validata survey also showed 14 percent of voters saying they would vote "against all" the candidates. Abdullah Bugaev, a former Kremlin-appointed local inspector, and Khusein Biybulatov, a former separatist Chechen cabinet member, are both credited with 8 percent.

Khaikin says Kadyrov's growing approval rating also coincides with a round of last-minute cosmetic improvements in the capital Grozny. A kindergarten was renovated, buildings were repaired, and enormous mounds of trash have been cleared from the city in recent weeks. Similar clean-up efforts were seen just before the March referendum, Khaikin added.

The poll director also says many Chechens will vote for Kadyrov simply because supporting the Kremlin's candidate is the only way they see to bring about change in the republic. But fear is also a motivation. Kadyrov's security force is suspected of employing armed Chechen militia groups, or "kadyrovtsi," to keep his opponents in check. Saidullaev has accused Kadyrov's gangs of kidnapping and torturing one of his election committee aides in an attempt to scare him out of the race.

A number of rights organizations monitoring Chechnya have also noted the growing influence of the roving militia groups. Rustam KAliyev is a Chechen journalist who was in the republic until early September. He said the fear of such gangs will inevitably affect people's votes. "I can say that there has never been the kind of fear that you have today. People dare only to whisper what they think about [Kadyrov's] administration," he said. "But one thing is certain: The Chechens see Kadyrov's victory as something unavoidable. Whether it's good or bad, that's another question. But the Chechens see it as inevitable."

International monitors have largely disavowed Sunday's vote. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe have both said they will not be sending monitors, although representatives from the Organization of the Islamic Conference will participate. Russia's presidential Human Rights Commission and the CIS Executive Committee will also be monitoring the vote.

(RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service contributed to this report.)