The election, a critical part of Russian President Vladmir Putin’s plan to restore Chechnya to normalcy and peace, is sparking little hope for political renewal in the small republic torn by internal violence and a decade-old battle for independence from the Russian Federation.
One by one, Kadryov’s key competitors slowly dropped out of the presidential race, citing technical problems with their candidacy or the lure of tempting government jobs.
“The Kremlin has said he must win, so he will. A victory by Kadyrov means war,” said Malik Saidullayev, a former front-runner candidate who was removed from the ballot on a technicality, according to Reuters.
The final ballot includes other contenders for Chechnya’s top job, but none appears to be a serious challenge to the largely unpopular Kadyrov.
“Now, he [Kadyrov] still has a few contenders, but none of them have the slightest chance of being elected. And this way Kadyrov has both an appearance of a democratic election and a guarantee to be elected as Chechen president,” independent regional analyst Masha Lippmann told the Voice of America news service.
Kadryov, a former clergyman, fought for the separatist movement during the first Chechen war in the mid-1990s. He was appointed by Putin in 2000 to head the local pro-Moscow administration and has been the apparent target of at least one of the suicide bombings to rock the region in recent months.
“Today we must unite to save our people,” he said in remarks broadcast on Russian TV on Thursday, according to the BBC.
Kadyrov is said to have an armed security force manned with as many as 4,000 officers, which has been accused of being a major source of intimidation in the region.
“Chechnya is under Kadyrov’s full control, and he has demonstrated that he can do whatever he wants,” Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow, told the Christian Science Monitor. “No elections are going to change that fact.”
In early September, Kadryov’s forces occupied one of Grozny’s two broadcast stations, leading 11 radio journalists to quit and the station to stop broadcasting, according to an account in the Moscow Times.
The Chechen press minister, Bislan Gantamirov, who was also running the Grozny television and radio company, was fired the previous day after reportedly disagreeing with some of Kadryov’s policies.
“All we want is to objectively report on the elections, on all the candidates equally,” Islam Musayev, the station’s deputy director, told the newspaper. “But now we have informed the Chechen election commission that we cannot do our job.”
An unidentified official from Kadyrov’s election headquarters said, “Don’t make a big deal out of it. Reorganization is always accompanied with problems,” according to the Times’ report.
Putin’s administration counters that the presidential election is the only way to set the small republic on the road to political, civic and economic recovery.
“Only after this can we finally give substance to the republic’s legal system, and give legal authority to an elected president,” Putin said in a speech.
Acting Chechen President Anatoly Popov refuted media reports that the region continues to flounder in the grip of violence in the days leading up to the election.
“Journalists are sensation seekers,” Popov told reporters inside the local government headquarters in Grozny, recently rebuilt after a suicide truck bombing blasted the building last December, killing some 80 people.
“Nobody wants to report, for example, that tomorrow we will be commissioning a new school or that altogether we have 14 new schools. But if somebody blows up a bus or even a bomb, immediately there is a lot of interest,” said Popov, according to Reuters.
The presidential election is a follow up to a March referendum in which voters approved a new constitution, a move Putin called “a step toward order.”
As with the constitutional referendum poll, some 30,000 Russian troops stationed in the region are reported to be eligible to participate in the vote.
Chechen-separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov dismissed the presidential election as illegitimate and vowed to continue fighting Russian federal forces “until the occupiers leave,” according to an interview with the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
Maskhadov was elected president of Chechnya during its brief period of de facto independence in 1997 in an internationally recognized election but has been in hiding since Russian troops regained control of Grozny in 2000.
Security Concerns Loom Large
Some Russian military officials admit the security situation in Chechnya is not optimal for an election, as evidenced by the heavy protection in place for the polling stations, which includes alarm systems, mine detectors, closed roads and other security measures.
Russian Colonel General Valery Baranov called the situation “not quite favorable” in a government press release about the tight security around polling places.
“I will vote for Kadyrov,” Grozny resident Khamzat Batayev told the Los Angeles Times. “If I make it safely to the polling station. If I’m not kidnapped or killed on the way, or blown to pieces in a polling booth.”
Two major international election observers, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, have declined to send monitors to the election, citing in part the tenuous internal security situation.
Grozny, a bombed out shell of a city, is preparing for the possibility of fresh violence in the wake of the election.
“We understand that forces which oppose the peace process will try to destabilize the situation before the election. [The rebels] have concrete plans for terrorist acts during that period,” Russian Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov said in mid-September, according to Interfax.
The difficult security situation in Chechnya has created a large refugee population, many of whom have fled to neighboring republics, and has severely limited the ability for humanitarian and other aid workers to operate in the region.
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that the total number of displaced Chechens living in neighboring Ingushetia hovers around 77,000, with more than 11,000 of those in tent camps.
The Russian minister for Chechnya said Friday that special buses will be provided to bring displaced persons living in Ingushetia to Chechnya and back so that they may participate in the presidential election.
Forced disappearances of aid workers and a lack of enforcement of international mandates in the region have driven out most humanitarian organizations, according to representatives from the Paris-based aid group Doctors Without Borders.
The United Nations tightened security for its workers in mid-September after local authorities warned of a fresh threat that rebels could try and kidnap aid workers.
For its part, the Bush administration has sent mixed signals on its views of the Chechnya situation.
“Terrorists must be opposed wherever they spread chaos and destruction, including Chechnya,” President Bush said during a joint news conference with Putin after a late September summit between the two leaders.
“A lasting solution to that conflict will require an end to terror, respect for human rights and a political settlement that leads to free and fair elections,” said Mr. Bush.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Steven Pifer provided a somewhat different assessment on Chechnya and its effect on U.S.-Russian relations during a speech he gave to the Helsinki Commission on Sept. 16.
“The conflict in Chechnya and the human rights abuses associated with it pose one of the greatest challenges to our partnership with Russia,” Pifer told the commission.
“We are also concerned that the present political process in which Moscow has been engaged is not sufficiently legitimate in the eyes of the Chechen people to bring about an end to the violence or to resolve the Chechen crisis anytime in the foreseeable future,” he added.
During a meeting with American journalists near Moscow on Sept. 20 ahead of his trip to Washington, Putin appeared to largely dismiss Pifer’s comments as irrelevant.
“I wouldn’t like to comment on mid-level State Department officials,” Putin said. “I’ll let [Secretary of State] Colin [Powell] deal with him.”
“The situation in Chechnya is perfectly ripe for electing a president and I have no doubts about it and Chechens themselves insist on that,” Putin said in response to a separate question on the elections, according to a transcript of the interview published by The Washington Post.