Tight security as Chechnya votes

 

Chechnya is voting today for a new leader in an election promoted by the Kremlin as a real chance for peace but scorned by separatist guerrillas as a farce doomed to failure.

Polling stations were to open, under Russian armed guard, at 8 a.m. (5 a.m. Irish time) in an election that the Kremlin hopes may bring an end to a long history of bloody conflict in the region.

Tens of thousands of people have died inside and outside the southern mountainous territory since Moscow sent its forces in December 1994 in a vain move to snuff out a secessionist movement but which engulfed the Caucasus in a protracted war.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sees the presidential contest as crucial for his plan to anchor Chechnya in Russia and legitimise local autonomy, four years after launching a second military drive to crush separatists.

But the insurgents, including fugitive Aslan Maskhadov who was elected president during Chechnya's de facto independence in the late 1990s but now regarded as a "terrorist" by Russia, say the poll will make no difference to their campaign to push Russian troops out of their homeland.

They have vowed to fight on.

Many observers, and much of Russia's press, question the value of the exercise since there is no serious challenger to the Kremlin-backed candidate Akhmad Kadyrov.

Kadyrov fought with rebels in the first war against Russian forces in 1994-96, but later changed sides and was subsequently appointed head of a pro-Moscow local administration in 2000.

Two prominent rivals withdrew or were disqualified as the presidential campaign drew to a close.

Interviewed this week by Novaya Gazeta newspaper, Maskhadov said: "A so-called elected Kadyrov does not differ in any way from an appointed Kadyrov."

"I don't believe the elections you refer to will have any effect on our armed struggle," he said in answers to questions emailed by the newspaper. His whereabouts are unknown.