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Kremlin's Man Leads Chechen Vote

Fearful of violence, many residents leave Grozny before the presidential election. A suicide bomber kills only himself.

August 30, 2004|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

GROZNY, Russia — The election of a new president of Chechnya unfolded in ghostly emptiness here Sunday as many residents fled the city or stayed indoors to avoid potential violence, even as a suicide bomber attacked a polling station in the heart of the city, killing only himself.

Russian officials nonetheless reported a good turnout in the vote, which was expected to elect the republic's top police official, Alu Alkhanov, to the post that became open when President Akhmad Kadyrov was assassinated in a bomb blast in May. Early today, Russian news agencies citing preliminary results reported that Alkhanov had taken 74% of the vote.

The election is crucial to the Kremlin's plan to put down Chechnya's separatist rebellion by installing a tough Chechen leader who will enforce order and carry out Moscow's plan to maintain Chechnya as a semiautonomous republic within the Russian Federation.

With an Islamic group allegedly supporting Chechen rebels claiming responsibility for the downing of two Russian passenger jets and a major attack by insurgents in Grozny this month, large numbers of residents left the Chechen capital before the election, and the normally busy streets were empty, except for an occasional military vehicle or passenger car.

"People are scared to leave their homes. They are afraid of attacks, ambushes. A lot of people have even left town," said Ruslan Ushayev, an unemployed musician.

"People are also afraid of the military. We are sick and tired of seeing people with guns in the streets. We're constantly under the barrels of these guns."

A 25-year-old Grozny man blew himself up near a polling station in the Zavodskoy district in central Grozny shortly after the polls opened at 8 a.m., but there were no other injuries.

Police said the man, identified as Rustam Chebiyev, was questioned by officers when he approached the polling station in a suspicious manner. When he tried to walk away, police followed him and he apparently ignited an explosive device, Chechen Deputy Interior Minister Sultan Sagouyev told the Interfax news agency.

Buyadi Shushkayev, who works down the street from the polling station, said he heard a loud explosion. "I ran out and saw a man lying in the street," he said. "The left side of his body was all torn up and bleeding. He was dressed very modestly. He was even wearing slippers."

There was no other reported violence, though the sound of gunfire could be heard ringing through central Grozny near midday.

Officials reported that turnout was close to 80%. There were more signs of life in rural villages than in Grozny.

A tour of three polling sites organized by the Russian government revealed similar scenes: Reporters would arrive at bustling polls, in some cases with lines of people waiting to vote, while street musicians and dancers frolicked outside.

Within half an hour, the voters dwindled to one or two, and the dancing ebbed away. At one polling station, a loud traditional band was left playing to an empty courtyard outside the polling station.

"People don't take these threats of violence seriously. They are sick and tired of war," said Eduard Mamakayev, election commission chief in Achkhoi-Martan, near the border with the republic of Ingushetia.

But at a market across the street, a 42-year-old unemployed construction engineer and former rebel, Beslan Kantayev, said he would not cross the street to vote.

"This is not an election," he said. "Two months ago, [Russian President Vladimir V.] Putin received Alkhanov in the Kremlin, and the Chechens were [left] to understand that whatever you think, your opinion is not important. They decide our president regardless of our opinion."

Kantayev, who received amnesty for turning in his weapons, said his loyalty remained with rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, Chechnya's last freely elected president before the second war with Russia started in 1999.

Yet throughout the republic, it was clear that there was substantial support for Alkhanov, the 47-year-old Chechen interior minister, and his mission to defeat the rebels, end the war and restore the ravaged economy.

Alkhanov has pushed Putin to allow the republic to keep a bigger share of revenue from oil pumped in the republic, and has helped spur payment of compensations, pensions and reconstruction funds. He has appealed to Chechen business people and laborers who fled to return and help rebuild.

In a well-received initiative last week, Alkhanov pledged that police would no longer be allowed to wear masks during operations -- an attempt to control the mysterious nighttime raids by men in masks and camouflage gear that have led to the disappearance of thousands of Chechens during the last four years.

Alkhanov said he had authorized opening fire on "anyone who appears in Grozny or any other populated area wearing a mask."

"Law enforcement agency staff have no reason to hide their faces, if they're acting in accordance with the law," he said.

Many Chechens who said they had cast their ballots for Alkhanov said they did so because of his strong stand on establishing order in the republic.

"Whatever they do, let them do it with an iron hand," said Said-Khasan Makharkhiyev, an 83-year-old pensioner.

Times special correspondent Mayerbek Nunayev in Grozny contributed to this report.

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