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Chechen campaign is test for Putin


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Chechen campaign is test for Putin

10 running against Kremlin appointee

By Peter Baker


MOSCOW, Aug. 24 — Within one 24-hour period this month, Russian forces fighting in Chechnya came under attack 19 times. In the same 24-hour period, Russian authorities collected registration forms from 11 men planning to run for president of the separatist republic.

NO CAMPAIGN trail in the world may be more treacherous than the one awaiting the candidates vying to lead the mountainous region ravaged by war, terrorism and lawlessness for most of the past nine years. And the path from last week’s filing deadline to the Oct. 5 election may prove no less treacherous for President Vladimir Putin as he seeks to “normalize†a place that seems anything but.

The election ordered by the Kremlin represents the next stage in Putin’s plan to move beyond the war in Chechnya, but it comes against a backdrop of continuing guerrilla battles and escalating suicide bombings. With the field of contenders now set, the campaign has been instantly framed as a contest between Akhmad Kadyrov, the Kremlin’s handpicked administrator, and anyone else. And given Kadyrov’s unpopularity, some leaders and analysts fear that the race may only lead to more violence.

“The situation is very tough,†said Ruslan Khasbulatov, a former speaker of the Russian parliament and one of the country’s most prominent Chechens. “A partisan war is going on, and the federal authorities aren’t doing anything to make life better for the people. The local authorities are the same. After so many years of war, we still can’t see to the end.â€

Putin, who as prime minister launched the latest war in Chechnya in 1999 and then rode the initial wave of public support to the presidency the next year, has long refused to conduct political negotiations to end the conflict. He grew even more adamant after Chechen guerrillas seized a Moscow theater last fall, leading to the deaths of 129 hostages and 41 Chechens when Russian commandos stormed the building after flooding it with a knock-out gas.


Instead, Putin decided this year to impose his own political solution, pronouncing the war officially over despite the continuing casualties. He started with a March referendum on a new provincial constitution that declared Chechnya part of Russia. Officials reported that 96 percent of Chechens approved the constitution in balloting with virtually no international observers. Putin then offered a limited amnesty to rebels who laid down their arms; as of last week, authorities reported that 140 guerrillas had turned in weapons under the offer, which expires Sept. 1.

The popular election of a new president of Chechnya was supposed to complete the cycle. But critics and analysts see it as an attempt to claim legitimacy for the Moscow-backed administration of Kadyrov, a former religious law scholar and onetime rebel who fought the Russians in the first war, from 1994 to 1996, but has been running the province for Putin the last three years.


“It looks like manipulation, what’s happening in Chechnya — everything, not only the election but the referendum and amnesty,†said Boris Nemtsov, leader of the Union of Right Forces, a reformist political party in Moscow. “The Kremlin made a huge mistake in supporting Kadyrov, huge, one of the biggest mistakes of the modern presidency.â€

Kadyrov has become exceedingly disliked, even feared, in Chechnya because he built what critics call his own palace guard of scores and perhaps hundreds of armed militiamen, led by his son. The force is often accused by Chechens of brutality. Some Chechens say they fear Kadyrov’s men more than the Russians, and a recent poll by Validata and the Public Opinion Foundation indicated that 61.5 percent of Chechens questioned were unwilling to vote for him “under any circumstances.â€

Even Kadyrov’s press minister, Bislan Gantamirov, said last week that in a fair election Kadyrov would get no more than 3 percent to 5 percent of the vote. Gantamirov, a former mayor of Grozny, the Chechen capital, who has broken with Kadyrov over the last year, declined to run but threw his support behind a Moscow businessman, Khusein Dzhabrailov, who has the backing of some Sufi Muslim leaders in Chechnya.

Like Gantamirov, Khasbulatov, the former parliament speaker, decided not to run and has touted Dzhabrailov instead. In 1993, Khasbulatov headed a challenge to then-President Boris Yeltsin’s government that led to a violent confrontation at the Russian parliament building. He said he changed his mind about running because Chechnya is still in the midst of war.

“I had to refuse,†he said as he smoked his trademark pipe in an interview last week at his Moscow home, a spacious apartment once occupied by Leonid Brezhnev’s daughter. “This is not an election. In military conditions, this is no election. First you need to create conditions. In Iraq, the Americans are trying to create the conditions first. Stability, then election.â€

The most popular rival to Kadyrov in the race is Aslambek Aslakhanov, Chechnya’s elected member of the State Duma, who has no campaign team as the contest gets underway. In an interview last week, Aslakhanov said he was offered an enormous sum of money to drop out of Chechen politics but would not identify who tried to bribe him.

He made clear he would target Kadyrov as the creature of the “party of war†who prolongs the conflict while surrounding himself with former rebels and thugs.

“All I know is he came to power and made the situation worse,†Aslakhanov said. “He will not be able to bring peace to the situation. Look who’s around him now. Who are these people? Are they the best of the Chechen public? No way. There are some honest people around him, but most of them live by the law of the wolves.â€

A Kadyrov aide in Moscow did not respond to a request for comment. The Kremlin has denied supporting Kadyrov in the election. “The Kremlin would not support any candidate because this would not be fair,†Putin’s spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, told the London-based Arabic newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat earlier this month. “The federal authorities are interested to see that the person who really enjoys support in Chechnya assumes power.â€


The campaign officially began last week as there was a notable upsurge in armed hostilities. Not only are rebel leaders boycotting the election, they also seem to be trying to sabotage it. In the last three months, Chechen suicide bombers have killed 200 people in explosions in Chechnya, its neighboring republics and Moscow.

On Wednesday, a firefight in the forests of southern Chechnya left eight Russian soldiers and 12 Chechen rebels dead, according to official accounts. Two more soldiers were killed the same day when their truck hit a land mine in Grozny.

The next day, four Chechen militiamen working with the Russians were killed when their truck was ambushed and nine Russian soldiers died when a mine planted in a car along the road exploded next to their passing military column. On Friday, 30 to 40 masked gunmen stormed into a medical clinic in next-door Ingushetia and kidnapped five Chechens. The same day officials reported that 18 Russian soldiers had been killed in the previous 24 hours.

Despite the continuing dangers, authorities have been trying to persuade 60,000 to 80,000 Chechen refugees living in Ingushetia to return home before the election. Several tent camps have been closed or have been slated for closing and the dislocated families have been offered money to go home. But human rights groups complain that the refugees are being pressured so that the Kremlin can claim that Chechnya is returning to normal.

One of Putin’s appointees acknowledged the problems but said the election can be held despite the insecurity, pointing to the relative lack of violence during the March referendum vote. Russia has said it would invite international observers to monitor the election.

“This is happening just in time,†said Oleg Mironov, the Russian government’s human rights ombudsman. “It’s necessary to support this in order to resurrect Chechnya.†Yet he acknowledged: “The election of a president by itself can hardly change the situation. You need a plan, you need certain laws, you need a broad economic program, you need to solve social problems for the people. Thousands and thousands of people have no roof over their heads.â€

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