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Tenuous Peace in Chechnya May Help Yeltsin in Runoff

Russia's Historic Vote

Election: Incumbent could win over voters if he can keep sights and sounds of a distasteful war off the airwaves.

June 18, 1996|VANORA BENNETT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GROZNY, Russia — An unexpected confluence of events has let a tenuous peace hold in Russia's rebellious southern republic of Chechnya, boosting incumbent Boris N. Yeltsin's chances of defeating his Communist opponent in next month's presidential runoff.

In the fierce sunshine of the Chechen capital, still a stark place of ruins and dust nearly 1 1/2 years after Russian troops bombed a separatist government out of town, residents heaved a sigh of relief that they have not been forced to flee new violence, this time election-related.

"The dangerous days are over, at least for the moment," said Yeva Avetisova, 80, a cleaner at a roofless, windowless barbershop in the center of town, looking at the crowd thronging past the Russian tanks and razor wire that section off Peace Street. "Thank God for that."

Heartfelt thanks were also in order from Yeltsin, who needs the Chechen peace to be preserved--at least until after a second round of voting next month--so he can keep the sights and sounds of the unpopular war off his citizens' television screens and win over undecided voters.

Yeltsin's negotiators last week won their president back some of the support the war had lost him by striking a peace deal with separatist leaders, who are still active in the mountains outside Grozny, the Chechen capital.

But Moscow's latest attempt at peace was upstaged by Doku Zavgayev, the leader that the Kremlin appointed to oversee the republic.

Although Russian federal officials had agreed to postpone a controversial local vote, the usually compliant Zavgayev wanted to legitimize his parliament and confirm the separatists' outlaw status. He defied Moscow and his Chechen rebel enemies and held a local vote on the issue anyway. It was conducted concurrently with the Russian presidential ballot.

Furious at being deceived over the local measure, the separatist leaders threatened reprisals.

That, in turn, concerned the Russians, as a series of bloody hostage-takings in Russia over the last year has sharpened their fears of Chechen vengeance. Russian police and Interior Ministry troops were on high alert in the run-up to Sunday's election.

*

But the vote in Chechnya failed to rekindle the war. The separatists' foreign minister explained that his colleagues had decided at a Saturday meeting that it would be a more subtle tactic to take the moral high ground than to disrupt the local vote.

"At first, we said we wouldn't allow these illegal elections," Ruslan A. Chimayev said. "Then we analyzed the situation and realized the Russians probably wanted us to start fighting again to give them a pretext to send in more troops as what they would call peacemakers and 'separate the warring sides.' We also realized there was no point in disrupting voting when the [local] elections were so patently rigged that people wouldn't bother going to vote anyway.

"Chechens are naive enough to keep their word when they give it, unlike the Russians, so we are keeping to the truce agreement," Chimayev said, adding that planned talks on the withdrawal of Russian troops could begin as soon as Russia agrees to a venue.

Although the overall truce held, there were violent incidents in the region. There were skirmishes outside polling stations, drive-by shootings at ballot boxes and a Saturday night of mortar attacks on Grozny houses by drunken Russian troops stationed in the city. The incidents, however, provoked nothing more than sullen apathy from the region's half a million voters.

Meanwhile, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, mediating in the Chechen-Russian conflict, was swift to condemn the local ballot as undemocratic. All but two of its Grozny representatives temporarily left town before the vote.

Zavgayev's election officials blamed a lack of information about turnout on poor communications but insisted that voting was going on everywhere. Desperate to bring more people to the polls, they ferried ballot boxes around the housing blocks of Grozny, persuading pensioners to vote.

But mobile voting boxes were nowhere to be seen in many outlying villages, and separatist sources listed 10 districts with separatist sympathies where local administrators had refused to organize the unwanted election.

Most Chechens only shrugged and shook their heads when asked whom they had voted for in the presidential election. Many said they found the notion of holding elections meaningless while thousands of Russian troops were still on their land.

*

Four hours before the voting was due to finish, Zavgayev triumphantly pronounced the polls closed. Yakub A. Sabirov, an electoral commission official, on Monday gave a surprisingly high preliminary turnout figure of more than 60%.

The pro-Moscow leadership was delighted it had gotten away with holding elections legitimizing its hold on power. Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Bugayev said conditions had been created that would bring peace at last.

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