Chechens vote for new parliament

 

Residents of Chechnya went to the polls today in the latest of a series of elections that are part of efforts to bring stability and peace.

Some 350 candidates are running for 58 seats in the two-chamber regional legislature.

Despite continuing corruption, squalor, crime, Islamic extremism and persistent skirmishes with rebel holdouts, Kremlin officials have repeatedly insisted that the oil-rich, Muslim region is on the road to recovery and stability.

As evidence, they point to the three public votes - two presidential, one referendum - the republic has held since March 2003. All the exercises were criticised as flawed at best, rigged at worst.

An estimated 100,000 civilians, soldiers and rebels have - official statistics have not been published - have died in two wars in Chechnya since federal troops first swept into the region in 1994 to crush its separatist bid.

The pitched battles that left Grozny a wasteland and sent thousands of Chechens fleeing into neighboring regions are no more. But a low-level conflict persists with regular skirmishes between Russian troops and their allied Chechen forces and rebel fighters, some with ties to Islamic extremist groups.

Grozny is awash in billboards promoting candidates and littered with campaign leaflets on walls, fences and buildings.

Observers and analysts, however, say the vote is the latest attempt by the Kremlin to make the situation look brighter than it is. Water and electricity are sporadic and unemployment is widespread - officially 60 percent of the region's more than 1 million residents are without work.

Threats of violence loom over the vote. Some 24,000 federal and regional troops and police will be protecting the region's 430 polling stations.

In the past week, there have been near-daily reports of gunbattles with militants and of secret explosives and arms caches uncovered.

Alkhanov was elected in August 2004 to replace the assassinated Akhmad Kadyrov, who was killed in a bomb blast that May, seven months after his own election. Neither election - nor the March 2003 constitutional referendum that cemented Chechnya's status as part of Russia - was considered free or fair.

Many observers suspect the parliament will be nothing more than a rubber-stamp legislature for the region's real ruler - Akhmad Kadyrov's son Ramzan.

He heads a widely feared security force that is accused of abuses ranging from kidnappings to robberies, and holds vast business interests in Chechnya's oil industry. His profile is higher than Alkhanov and he is widely expected to become president sometime after turning 30 next year.