Moscow hoping moderate will win today's election in Chechnya


AFTER today's elections in the rebel region of Chechnya, Moscow will be faced not only with a population which has fought for independence but also with one which has voted to be separate from the Russian Federation.

Of the 15 candidates for the regional presidency, only those who support a break from Russia stand any chance of being elected.

But Moscow finds some candidates more palatable than others and the two front runners represent the opposite poles of the Kremlin's tolerance.

Leading in opinion and straw polls is Mr Aslan Maskhadov (45), a former Red Army colonel who masterminded the Chechen rebels' military successes against the more numerous and better equipped Russian Federal forces in a war which is believed to have cost the lives of between 50 000 and 90,000 civilians.

Mr Maskhadov, while clever and ruthless in battle, has proved to be an astute politician, a moderate in the Chechen context, and the man who finally did a deal with the then Russian security chief, Gen Alexander Lebed, to end hostilities.

His support comes from the older and more educated segments of the population, from the people of the Chechen plains and from those Chechens who have been forced to flee as refugees from the war.

The local authorities had earlier decided not to allow the refugees to vote but the arrival of a group of heavily armed men at a meeting of the regional parliament in early December saw to it that the refugees got the vote.

For all this, Mr Maskhadov is a moderate. The considerable minority which opposed the war and even some of those who sided with Moscow are also keen to see a Maskhadov presidency emerge from today's vote.

They recognise that he is more likely to be magnanimous in victory than his main rival, the notorious guerrilla commander, Mr Shamil Basayev, who was responsible for the taking of 1,500 hostages in a hospital in the southern Russian town of Budyonnovsk in June 1995.

Mr Basayev (32) is the darling of the young fighters, the favourite of the mountain villages and the man Moscow is most worried about. His policy is simple, straightforward and contained in the words of his election slogan: "There is no God but Allah, there is no power except for his power, there is no law except for his law."

His campaign has been more energetic that Mr Maskhadov's and has seen him switch his image from that of a bearded guerrilla in combat fatigues to that of a smart young man who moves from village to village in a convoy of Mercedes limousines.

His tolerance of rule from Moscow, even for the five years agreed in the peace plan, is brittle in the extreme. He started the campaign well behind Mr Maskhadov but appears to have been gaining strength in recent weeks.

The current President, Mr Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, has received the support of the widow of Mr Dzhokhar Dudayev, the leader who would have been an electoral certainty had he not been killed by Russian special forces who homed in on the signals from his mobile phone. Mr Yandarbiyev's support is, however, believed to have dropped to below 20 per cent.

If no candidate gets more than 50 per cent of the vote today, a second round between the two front runners will be held in two weeks time.