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Chechnya: Election Appears Sewn Up

Alu Alkhanov cruises towards becoming Moscow's next leader in Chechnya.
By Timur Aliev

On ruined Minutka Square in the south of Grozny, a large multi-coloured poster covers the entire side of a five-storey building. It shows Russian President Vladimir Putin shaking hands with Chechnya's interior minister and presidential candidate, Alu Alkhanov. Behind Putin is the Kremlin in Moscow, behind Alkhanov is an old Chechen fortified tower.

The message conveyed by the billboard is straightforward: the Kremlin is backing Alkhanov as its candidate in the election which will be held in Chechnya on August 29.

Forty-seven-year-old Alkhanov, a major-general who has spent his entire career in the police force, is the overwhelming favourite in the election. The other six candidates present no threat to him at all.

Indeed three of his six rivals have played the role of "torpedoes" - in the language of political advertising - using their campaign speeches to make statements useful to Alkhanov.

"The electoral space in Chechnya has been cleared of competitors," said Chechen political analyst Timur Muzayev.

Alkhanov did face a serious potential rival, in the shape of Moscow-based Chechen businessman Malik Saidullayev. But Saidullayev, who was barred from standing in last October's election against late Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrov, was again refused registration by Chechnya's Central Electoral Commission. He was told that his registration documents were not in order and that his plans to stand for the Russian parliament, the State Duma, prevented him running in the Chechen election.

Of the other candidates left in the race, the best known is Movsar Khamidov, a colonel in the Russian security service, the FSB, and a former deputy prime minister in the Chechen government. However, his campaign never made an impact.

"Khamidov's campaigners tried to assert that the Kremlin had not made up its mind who its candidate would be and that it might actually be Khamidov," said Muzayev. "But it didn't sound convincing. Perhaps they were let down by a lack of money."

At first Alkhanov's prospects did not look too bright. The election was called after the May 9 assassination of President Kadyrov, who had been elected in a highly disputed poll just six months before.

It was immediately assumed that Kadyrov's successor would be a figure from his government, who would be called upon to continue the policy of "Chechenised" administration sanctioned by Putin.

Kadyrov's younger son Ramzan, who had been head of his security service and become de facto the most powerful man in Chechnya, was too young to run for office and had to be rewarded with the post of deputy prime minister.

At that point, Alkhanov was virtually unknown in Chechnya. But the same public relations team that worked with Kadyrov last year set to work on his image, making much of his good service record in the interior ministry. The presidential administration in the Kremlin took charge of the elections themselves. Alkhanov soon began to receive copious free publicity, appearing regularly on Russian television news broadcasts.

"In the figure of Alkhanov there was a coincidence of interests of the Kremlin, which wants to conserve the current situation of 'no war, no peace' in the republic, and the interests of the ruling group, which wants to stay in power and to preserve and strengthen its control over the main financial flows in the republic," said Muzayev.

After he was confirmed as the official candidate, Alkhanov was given the freedom to make outspoken comments, which lifted his popularity rating. He raised the issue of the abduction of Chechen civilians, called for a crackdown on corruption and even said that he would not rule out talks with separatist president Aslan Maskhadov. He proposed the creation of a free economic zone for Chechnya in which businessmen would not have to pay taxes and the Chechen government would control the republican budget.

A new "Public Council" was then formed with Alkhanov at its head, which allowed the presidential candidate to canvas for votes unofficially, outside the official campaign.

"It was organised so cleverly that Alkhanov's speeches were only reported in news broadcasts about the work of his Public Council," commented Taisa Isayeva, who has been monitoring the election on behalf of a group of a group of Chechen non-governmental organisations.

The election was nearly wrecked by a serious upsurge in fighting. On the night of August 21, just hours before Putin visited Chechnya, the rebels launched an assault on Grozny. The fighters put up checkpoints on the roads and attacked police units and polling stations for three hours. Casualties among the police, the federal army and the civilian population were reported at more than 20 and may have been far higher.

The rebel news agency Chechenpress published a commentary calling the action a "dress rehearsal" for a bigger operation.

The next day, the Russian president went ahead with a visit to Chechnya. The formal reason given for his trip was to visit Kadyrov's grave on what would have been his 53rd birthday, but it served the purpose of telling the public that the situation in Chechnya was under control.

Ordinary Chechens are expressing little interest in the election and are mostly preoccupied with what polling day will mean for their personal security. "I am planning to leave town during the election," said Grozny resident Makka Yandarova. "Everyone says there may be terrorist acts."

The pro-Moscow interior ministry has been put on a state of high alert and has pledged to protect polling stations.

Chechen political analyst Edilbek Khasmagomadov says that the central electoral commission is now experienced enough to deliver the result that is expected of it - a resounding victory for Alkhanov.

He added, "Yet they are somehow forgetting that elections are important not as a mere procedure but as a chance for society to express its true will. Otherwise elections lose all meaning, and just become a formality, lending a veneer of legitimacy to an administration that rules for itself, and not from a mandate given it by society."

Timur Aliev is IWPR's coordinator for Chechnya.

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