November 27, 2005

Russia’s troubled Chechnya votes for new assembly

GROZNY, Russia (Reuters) - Chechens were voting on Sunday
for a regional assembly that is unlikely to appease anti-Moscow
rebels but is expected to cement the power of a local
pro-Russian strongman.

The poll marks the end of a unilateral peace plan drawn up
by Moscow for the turbulent region. With a parliament, it will
have all the government functions needed to make it -- on paper
-- a normal part of the Russian state.

The voting started at 8 a.m. (6 a.m. British time) amid
high security and the region's pro-Moscow president, Alu
Alkhanov, was among the first to vote in his home town of
Urus-Martan, predicting at least 70 percent of turnout.

"We've been through the phase of military action. Now we've
begun reconstruction," Itar-Tass news agency quoted him as
saying on the eve of voting. "Now we're starting to built a
republic with all the necessary trappings."

President Vladimir Putin, who sent troops back into
Chechnya in 1999 to end a brief period of effective
independence, has said the poll will allow "difficult questions
to be resolved openly, in a civilised way, and not through

RIA news agency quoted Alkhanov as saying that four
repentant rebels took part in the race for 18 seats in the
regional assembly's upper house and 40 seats in the lower

"This shows once again that we are on our way to
democracy," he said. "Our policy is targeted at uniting the
people. We should help those who want to return to peaceful

Seven parties are taking part, but few doubt that people
loyal to Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov -- the de facto
pro-Moscow leader of the region -- will pack the assembly.


Kadyrov's power stems from his thousands of irregular
troops -- most of them, like him, former rebels -- that are
accused by rights groups of brutality against local people in
their fight for control.

"The non-Kadyrov figures will be a minority and will be
subordinate to the pro-Kadyrov majority," said Boris Makarenko,
an analyst from the Center of Political Technologies.

The rebels, whose battle for independence has included
killing many civilians, call Kadyrov a Russian stooge and say
the poll will do nothing to persuade them to disarm.

"The upcoming elections have nothing in common with a real
political process. All it does is push further away the day
when there will be a real political solution, and lead to the
expansion of the theater of war," Akhmed Zakayev, rebel envoy
abroad, told a London conference on the eve of the poll.

"The responsibility for the consequences lies with the
Russian government."

The 100,000 Russian troops in and around Chechnya, along
with Kadyrov's irregulars and other pro-Moscow Chechen forces,
face separatist attacks daily. Russia does not publish a death
toll, but observers say the war may have cost as many as 20,000
soldiers' lives.

Some officials have put the number of dead for the 11-year
war, including civilians, as high as 160,000.

Amid such violence, human rights groups say a free and fair
poll is impossible despite the high number of parties taking
part and the relatively incident-free campaign.

"There were no dirty tricks in the Soviet elections (under
dictator Josef Stalin) in 1937 either. They were not needed
because people were already scared," said Alexander Cherkasov,
from rights group Memorial.

(Additional reporting by Peter Graff)