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Chechnya: Elections Go According To Kremlin's Plan

Chechnya's presidential election yesterday went much as expected, with Kremlin-backed Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov -- running virtually unopposed -- raking in three-quarters of the votes. Russian authorities, eager to ensure that their candidate is seen as the legitimate winner, went to considerable effort to portray the ballot as free and fair. But critics continue to dismiss the vote as nothing less than a farce. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports on the election results and possible consequences for Chechnya.

Moscow, 6 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- On the surface, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov has made a seamless transition from the Kremlin-appointed Chechen administrator to its popularly elected president.

With ballots still being counted, Kadyrov appears to have won a landslide 80-percent victory in yesterday's presidential election. The Chechen Election Commission put official turnout at 81 percent. Commission chair Abdul Karim Arsakhanov said Kadyrov is the "absolute leader" and that it is "practically impossible" that any of the other candidates will "get close to him or overtake him."

Speaking today in Chechnya, Kadyrov accepted his victory and pledged to work for the good of the republic. "I am feeling the enormous weight of responsibility for the republic, for the people who trust me. I thank them very much. I know there is a lot to be done, and it should be done together with the people.

In Moscow, Kremlin officials were equally pleased by the results. Russian President Vladimir Putin -- who included Kadyrov in his entourage during his trip to the United States last month -- today welcomed the outcome as a sign of hope:

"I think what is going on in Chechnya right now does not need any commentary. I'm not even mentioning the result [of the presidential election], which is certainly very pleasing. That's not even the issue. The mere fact of such a high turnout means that the people have hope -- hope for a better life, hope for positive changes in the republic."

The result of the vote came as no surprise. None of Kadyrov's main potential rivals ever made it to election day -- three resigned and one was barred on an alleged procedural violation.

The Kremlin has portrayed the election as a key step in bringing peace and stability to the republic, which has been ravaged by a four-year war between federal forces against separatist fighters. The vote follows the approval of a new constitution declaring Chechnya an "inseparable part" of Russia. The next step, according to Putin, is working out a power-sharing agreement between the republic and Moscow and electing a Chechen parliament.

Russian authorities took pains to portray the vote as fair and welcomed by the Chechen people, with most television stations broadcasting footage of enthusiastic voters and blushing Chechen brides who chose to marry on election day. Chechen Premier Anatolii Popov, in an interview with Russia's NTV television, commented on footage showing Chechens singing and dancing: "This is a village called Tolstoi-Yurt. There were two weddings in a row; the brides are voting in their wedding gowns. There is music everywhere, songs. In short, the people are celebrating. In Chechnya today, it's a celebration."

Ten thousand federal troops were posted at polling stations to ensure safety. Popov said the election had been conducted amid relative calm, with just 10 "insignificant" incidents reported the night before the vote.

"Kommersant" newspaper reported on two such incidents. In one, federal troops and unidentified fighters engaged in a nighttime shootout at a Grozny polling station. The fighting finally ended with the arrival of Russian APCs just hours before the vote was due to begin. And in the village of Samashki, a correspondent for the newspaper reported witnessing Russian troops scouring for landmines near a polling station after one detonated on election morning.

Several Russian newspapers also described empty polling stations, in an apparent contradiction to the high official turnout.

International monitors were largely absent from the vote. Both the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe refused to send representatives. Some 40 observers were on hand from the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Moscow Helsinki Group, and the CIS Executive Committee.

Lyudmilla Alekseyeva, the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, gave a mixed assessment of the vote, saying: "It's difficult to speak of free elections in a war-ridden region, because each person thinks he has to go on living in Chechnya and believes that his [political] position can have consequences for his family."

However, Alekseyeva did say she did not see anyone being forced to vote or otherwise subjected to pressure on voting day. The CIS delegation also gave the vote a positive appraisal, as did Ella Pamfilova, head of Russia's presidential human rights commission. Kadyrov says the election legitimizes him in the eyes of not only average Chechens, but also separatist fighters, whom he said must heed his call to lay down their arms. But few have any hope the vote will bring an end to the violence that continues to ravage the republic.

Chechen political analyst Yuri Khanzhin told RFE/RL's Russian Service that he expects little to change in the wake of the election. "These are elections that will change practically nothing in Chechnya. What will the federal center ask of administration head Akhmed Kadyrov now that he has changed the name of his function and become President Akhmed Kadyrov? They will ask for what they have asked for all along: absolute obedience and submissiveness."

Many observers have expressed doubts about Kadyrov's political talent and powers as a peace-broker for Chechnya. Kadyrov -- a former separatist who fought in the first Chechen war and later served as head mufti under Aslan Maskhadov -- is widely despised by Chechen fighters, who accuse him of betraying their cause.

But some analysts say Kadyrov's elected status strengthens his position in Chechnya and makes him less vulnerable to the whims of Moscow. Nikolai Petrov, an analyst with the Carnegie Fund, says Kadyrov -- who has some influence on the rise or fall of violence in the republic -- may enjoy considerable negotiating power with the Kremlin in the run up to Russia's presidential election next March. This may be especially important as talks begin on a power-sharing agreement between the republic and Moscow. Petrov says Kadyrov will lobby for extensive economic powers, which he calls the "key to full power in Chechnya."

Chechnya's main asset, Grozneftegaz, is likely on his wish list. The oil company is split between state-owned Rosneft (51 percent) and the Chechen administration (49 percent). Kadyrov has repeatedly said he wants total economic control over the region's energy network.