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THE WORLD

With Ally in Office, Putin's Plan in Place

Chechnya's new president faces the challenges of rebuilding and stabilizing the tense republic so that Russian troops can withdraw.

October 07, 2003|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

GROZNY, Russia — The announcement of Akhmad Kadyrov's victory in Chechnya's presidential election Monday was accompanied by the usual fanfare: Half a city block was shut down in downtown Grozny and two dozen federal troops fanned out along the streets. An armored personnel carrier idled uneasily nearby, entrusted with keeping the news conference from being blown up.

Pedestrians waited quietly only inches from the soldiers' raised guns, like cars at a railroad crossing. Inside a government building, elections chief Abdul-Kerim Arsakhanov jubilantly declared an 87% victory for Kadyrov and a new era of stability for the broken republic, shattered by six years of war.

"We're hoping for the best. Of course Kadyrov will try. But we don't understand what he can do, really," said Apti Aslamov, a 36-year-old engineer, as he tried, and failed, to get by a soldier on the sidewalk.

"If it were me, I would stop the kidnapping of the people. And I would find," he said, surveying the scene around him, "some way to deal with these troops, to reduce them and then withdraw them altogether."

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin's plan for Chechnya's rehabilitation has fallen into place with the election of Kadyrov, the Muslim cleric and former rebel who has served as Moscow's appointed administrator in the republic for the last three years.

Whether the tough new president can channel reconstruction funds where they're intended, bring residents back into Grozny's ghostly streets or stabilize the republic enough for Russian troops to withdraw in significant numbers remained questionable -- even after this week's election milestone.

"Helping Kadyrov get elected was a huge mistake on the part of Moscow," said Andrei Piontkovsky, director of Moscow's Center for Strategic Studies, a think tank. He said the Kremlin erred in backing a candidate who has very little popular support in Chechnya outside his own hometown.

"In fact, in electing Kadyrov, the Kremlin has irretrievably lost a very good chance to return the situation in Chechnya back to normal," he said. "Most people in Chechnya do not trust -- and fear -- Kadyrov.... This means that Putin's plan of taming Chechnya and bringing it back under the authority of [Moscow] has foundered."

Putin launched the once-popular war in Chechnya for a second time in 1999, riding a wave of public anger over terrorist bombings of apartment complexes elsewhere in Russia and an incursion by Chechen rebels into neighboring Dagestan.

In two blistering assaults on the small Caucasian republic and the lingering guerrilla war that has ensued, at least 5,000 Russian soldiers have died, tens of thousands of civilians have been killed, and Grozny, the capital, has been reduced to rubble.

Now, Putin seems determined to end the war before he faces re-election in the spring, and apparently sees in Kadyrov a leader tough enough to finish off the estimated 3,000 remaining rebels even as the Russian armed forces pull out and hand over authority to Chechen police.

At his own news conference, Kadyrov said he would immediately launch a commission to investigate crimes in Chechnya since 1991. He said he would also urge Putin to extend the deadline for offering amnesty to rebels who agree to turn in their weapons and support the new government.

Kadyrov said he had been contacted by some rebel leaders already. Neither Kadyrov nor Putin has shown a willingness to seek out the man Chechens elected as their last president in 1997, Aslan Maskhadov.

Maskhadov, considered the key to any durable peace in Chechnya, is believed to be hiding in the republic's southern mountains with some rebel forces.

"I am not going to hold any dialogues with Maskhadov," Kadyrov said. "Maskhadov knows my plan and my position. If he has something to offer to the Chechen people, let him come to Kadyrov, and I will be ready to work with him."

Authorities said 83.4% of the republic's 545,000 eligible voters participated in Sunday's ballot.

"The very fact of such a high turnout indicates that people have hopes," Putin said Monday in Moscow.

"They have hopes for a better life," Putin continued, "hopes for positive changes in the life of the republic, in the lives of their families, hopes for the resolution of social issues, as well as ensuring their own safety."

But Sergei Shimovolos, an unofficial observer from the Moscow Helsinki Group, a human rights organization, said he witnessed numerous irregularities in one district south of Grozny, including instances of voters casting ballots on behalf of other people and Kadyrov's literature being displayed at polling places.

Ballots from the 180,000-resident Shali district, instead of being counted in front of observers at the polling places, were taken to the offices of the district administrator and counted secretly, Shimovolos said

"Armed guards were standing around buildings, and they wouldn't let anybody there," he said.

Arsakhanov, the elections chief, when confronted by Shimovolos at the news conference, said it was the first he had heard of any such report. "We don't have a single official complaint. I'm not inclined to believe your words," he said. "It didn't happen."

*

Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko and Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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