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Many in Chechnya See Election as a Formality

Observers say Russia is working to ensure that the Kremlin-backed candidate is elected. Separatist rebels have vowed to kill him if he is.

August 29, 2004|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

ARGUN, Russia — Among the insurgents fighting in Chechnya's long-running war for independence, Musost Khutiyev is known as a "national traitor." This is because he forgave the Russians whose troops seized his 18-year-old son, removed his vital organs, and then ransomed the body back to Khutiyev for $1,500.

Khutiyev, who commanded the Chechen rebels' Argun unit until 2002, is now deputy mayor of the city; his security forces are fighting the rebels in collaboration with Russian troops; and when he goes to the polls in today's presidential election, he will cast his vote for Alu Alkhanov, the candidate the Kremlin wants to see installed as Chechnya's next president.

"I have no moral right to accuse the entire Russian people of killing my son," Khutiyev said Saturday from his heavily secured office at City Hall. "Maybe if we had honest and very decent people as our leaders, Chechnya could function on its own. But right now we can't live without Russia."

It is with this same sense of resignation -- tinged with fear of what happens to those who are not resigned -- that most Chechens are preparing for today's vote, called to replace the last Kremlin-backed president, Akhmad Kadyrov, who was assassinated in a bombing in May.

The insurgents have vowed to disrupt the election and kill Alkhanov if he is elected, and political observers say Russia is taking pains to ensure that there is no other outcome to the balloting.

In the wake of a pair of airline crashes in Russia last week that investigators say may have been caused by Chechen suicide bombers, residents are bracing for possible violence at the polls today. Many have streamed out of the capital, Grozny, for the relative safety of villages. By late Saturday morning, a usually bustling market on the west side of Grozny was nearly deserted.

"I haven't had a customer since early morning. Look, no customers at all," said a nervous Inga Magoyeva, sitting behind a table of cheap electronic games. "I'll pack and go myself soon. Everybody's leaving town. They're afraid."

Russia has been at war with Chechen separatists for much of the last decade. At first there was broad support here for the homegrown fighters, but many others argued for remaining part of Russia. So much violence has taken place that both sides are now regarded by many with equal disdain.

Today's election -- crucial to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin's attempt to portray Chechnya as a willing volunteer for peaceful integration into the Russian Federation -- seems to mean little to many Chechens.

On A.H. Kadyrov Street -- renamed a week ago in an apparent attempt to inspire enthusiasm for the slain president's legacy -- pensioner Alan Dudayev scoffed. "We don't see anything good in this republic so far, and as far as this election goes, it's a formality. They have already selected their man."

With the October election of Kadyrov, a former Muslim spiritual leader and rebel fighter who switched sides and joined the Russians, there was some optimism that a president friendly with Russia would at least be able to end the war. Slowly, compensation for bombed-out homes was beginning to be paid, some reconstruction was underway, and people who largely had been without telephones for a decade were lining up to buy the republic's first cellphones.

Kadyrov succeeded in attracting hundreds of former rebel fighters, like Khutiyev, to the pro-Russia side by offering them amnesty and jobs. But Kadyrov's own security forces, directed by his son, Ramzan, became nearly as feared as the Russian troops, and mysterious nighttime arrests and disappearances have continued. Many Chechens now regard Kadyrov's forces, who were unable to protect his life, as fearfully as they do Russian troops and the rebels.

"It is strange when a day or a night passes without an explosion. People who live here are used to anything. What we are doing is purely surviving," said Bella Taimaskanova, who sat one afternoon under the trees at Grozny stadium, near the wrecked hulk of the VIP stand on which Kadyrov died.

"I will not guarantee that the same fate will not befall Alkhanov," Taimaskanova added, with a nod toward the reviewing stand. "When he shook hands with Putin, people understood that he would be the next victim."

Yet Khutiyev said many Chechens now believe that the only hope for an end to the violence is by working with the Russians.

He realized there was no point in fighting, he said, when he lay wounded for the second time in a hospital in 2002, and Islamic extremist fighters offered to pay him to mount sabotage attacks.

"They were offering $1,000 for a destroyed APC [armored personnel carrier]. For a tank, you get $2,000. For a senior officer, from $3,000 to $5,000. But I have my principles. I never fight for money," Khutiyev said. "At that time, I realized that if you fight without an idea, you will never win. And I realized there was no idea from the beginning. We never had it."

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