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Chechen Vote Occurs Amid Hope, Cynicism

With an estimated 80% turnout, the Kremlin's administrator is poised to win the presidency in a republic crippled by six years of conflict.

October 06, 2003|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

ARGUN, Russia — If lunch could end ethnic conflicts, this town in central Chechnya was offering a United Nations of meals.

"We prepared a delicious lunch. We slaughtered a lamb for the Muslims, we prepared snakes for the Chinese. We have a dish for every nationality," Karim Guchigov, head of the municipal administration, declared Sunday at the town's main polling station, as voters streamed in to have a bite, elect a president and try to put an end to the breakaway republic's six years of war with Russia.

Election supervisors, with an office piled high with food for poll workers and foreign visitors, were in a festive mood, and said 60% of Argun's voters had cast ballots by 4 p.m. "People are connecting all their hopes and aspirations with these elections. They hope for the stabilization of the republic," said Ramisa Barzukayeva, polling station director.

Outside, the mood was not quite so upbeat. "There is some hope, of course," Sato Khazayev, a 32-year-old photo shop owner, said as he watched the hoopla next door. "But if you ask me, this election's not going to change anything. Everything's going to be the way it was before."

Chechnya's presidential election, the cornerstone of the Kremlin's plan for ending the war that has crippled this republic, drew more than 80% of voters to the polls, officials said, amid massive security aimed against rebels' pledges to disrupt the balloting.

All over this grassy Caucasian valley, Russian soldiers dug in along roadsides, armored carriers patrolled the streets, and troops stood watch outside polling stations. Voters often had to thread their way past Kalashnikov rifles and concrete barricades to reach the voting booths.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin is counting on the election -- whose preliminary results, according to Russian television, gave Akhmad Kadyrov, his appointed administrator, 85% of the vote -- to win international acceptance for Russia's peace plan in Chechnya and transition the republic into an autonomous but permanent part of the Russian Federation.

International observers and Russian human rights groups declined to send envoys to view the balloting, citing security concerns and fears that the election, in which Kadyrov faced no serious opposition, was being stage-managed by the Kremlin.

Officially, Kadyrov, a former rebel leader who was Chechnya's leading Islamic cleric before joining the Kremlin-backed administration three years ago, faced six opponents. But the two men with the widest popular backing in Chechnya were not on the ballot. One dropped out of the race to take a plum Kremlin job; the other was disqualified by the courts.

In his hometown of Tsentoroi, Kadyrov swept into the polling station Sunday in a dark pinstripe suit and a traditional hat. Afterward, meeting with reporters, he rejected assertions that he is representing Moscow in Chechnya.

"Kadyrov has never been anybody's puppet," he said. "If I'm elected, I will be a legitimately elected leader of the republic, and, on behalf of my people, I will be able to make demands and requests.

"We already have peace in Chechnya, and it's getting stronger and stronger by the day," he added. "People are sick and tired of [this war]. These elections are the last hope for them. We must live up to people's expectations. If we betray those people again, we will be condemned."

In the streets outside, Kadyrov's neighbors were enthusiastic. "The war will be over, and the state will flourish again, as in the past," said Mukhadi Ushayev, a 40-year-old driver. "As for independence, we don't need it. We have seen this independence. There's nothing we can do alone. We should live together with our neighbors."

"A lot of things have changed already," added Yakhita Bikhayeva, 48, who has begun receiving a subsidy of 3,000 rubles a month, about $100, for her three children since Kadyrov took over. "They pay pensions now. They pay subsidies. Our constitution is already in effect. It's all because of Kadyrov. He understands people -- he knows what the people want."

Three elderly men with walking sticks sat guard outside the polling station in Bachi Yurt, a farm town of about 16,000 people in eastern Chechnya. They were, they said, self-appointed election observers, ensuring that the balloting was fair.

"I didn't vote in the last election [in 1997]," said Visady Abdulkhadziyev, 74. "We didn't go to the polls, but they put our signatures on the ballots anyway. This time ... it's a clean election. We are elders, and we are sitting here and watching over the place to make sure that it is."

Though separatist rebels -- 3,000 of whom still control much of Chechnya's wild and mountainous south -- had vowed to disrupt the balloting, Iliya Shabalkin, head of the Russian military's anti-terrorist forces in Chechnya, said there were no incidents of violence. "We didn't have a single emergency, despite all the threats by the rebels, which proved once again that they do little but bluff," he said.

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