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War-Weary Chechens Eye Ballot Box

Many in the Russian republic doubt that a Nov. 29 parliamentary vote will bring change. Even so, the race has drawn 400 candidates.

November 05, 2005|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

TSA-TSA YURT, Russia — For die-hard separatist rebels, the Moscow-backed government in Chechnya has what might be called a carrot-and-stick approach.

Those who lay down their arms are offered welcome and amnesty. Witness Magomed Khanbiyev, who was once a powerful rebel general. Today, a little more than a year after surrendering, he is back home and running as a candidate for Chechnya's first postwar parliament.

And then there's Shamil-Hadzhi Muskiyev, a close ally of the rebel president. A few weeks ago, residents of this small town in central Chechnya awoke to find his severed head impaled on a small bridge at the edge of town. The body of another fighter, also killed in a clash with Chechen security forces, was hanging nearby.

"They didn't let people bury them, and people began to grumble that you can't leave dead bodies there like that -- dogs could get them, bring something up to the house," said Razet Dukayeva, who lives down the road from the river. "The elders said it was a sin.

"I guess they wanted to show that they are acting, that they're freeing us from bandits," she said. "Who can feel reassured? No one can feel reassured from something like that."

The elections scheduled for Nov. 29 are the final stage of the Kremlin's peace plan for Chechnya, a process that began with a 2003 referendum affirming the separatist republic's permanent place in Russia and that was sealed with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin's announcement that more than a decade of war was at an end.

But the continued fighting leaves some unconvinced.

"They say everything is normal. But the skirmishes continue. The bombings continue in the forests," said Laila Khalakova, 49, another Tsa-Tsa Yurt resident, whose son-in-law disappeared when Russian troops entered the town in 2000.

"I have this opinion: Never between the Chechens and the Russians, whatever they say, whatever beautiful words they say, will there be anything but constant enmity and fury toward each other," she said. "My 3-year-old granddaughter says, 'I wish I had a gun; I would shoot down all those Russians who have entered our houses.' "

Despite the turmoil that continues to envelop this devastated republic in southern Russia, more than 400 candidates from eight parties have registered to run for a parliament that could become Chechnya's first forum for broad civic debate since the second war with Russia began in 1999.

Since then, there have been no official means to vent popular anger over brutal and arbitrary arrests, continuing corruption in the government and the fact that 474,000 Chechens remain unemployed, far outnumbering the 154,000 who hold jobs.

"The economic situation is catastrophic. And unfortunately, many of these questions -- the poverty of the population, the violations of human rights and people's security, the healthcare situation -- remain insufficiently analyzed by the executive authorities," said Vahit Akayev, a sociology professor at Chechen State University and an independent candidate for parliament.

Already, the parliamentary election campaign is shaping up as a contest between clans and between alliances over the future leadership of the republic.

Officially, President Alu Alkhanov is scheduled to serve until 2008. But Ramzan Kadyrov, the son of his assassinated predecessor, has been waiting in the wings as deputy prime minister and chief of a powerful presidential security force reported to number 4,000 men.

Many analysts expect Kadyrov, who already is the most powerful man in Chechnya, to take over the presidency next year when he turns 30, the minimum age required under the constitution. Kadyrov has been lining up friendly candidates not only in the pro-Putin United Russia party but on the lists of several minor parties as well.

"There's a billion dollars a year [in Russian aid] coming to Chechnya every year, and Ramzan wants control of 70% of it. The others don't want to give him that. And that's what the contest is about," said Abdulla Istamulov, who heads SK-Strategiya, a group promoting civil society in Russia that is organizing monitors for the balloting.

SK-Strategiya is conducting polls for a coalition of opposition parties and nongovernmental organizations, the Coalition of Democratic Forces. The bloc had been calling for disarming the militiamen who surround Kadyrov, returning Russian troops to their barracks and providing enough security to entice Chechens abroad into returning, rebuilding their homes and starting new businesses.

But the coalition's Republican Party was disqualified late last month when authorities challenged its signatures, even though it had collected nearly five times the number required.

Khanbiyev, the former rebel defense minister, hopes to entice those disillusioned with the ruling United Russia party into joining the system. Although he agreed to the government's amnesty deal, under which about 7,000 former fighters have returned to civilian life, he insists he remains an independent.

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