VOTE IN CHECHNYA

 

The devastated region of Chechnya has elected anew president amid plaudits for the conduct of the election from observers representing the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co operation in Europe. Not only have these organisations declared the poll to be free and fair, they have gone a step further than usual by praising the conduct of the electoral process. This is a major achievement for a region which until recently was riven by a factionalism some of it historic but a great deal of which was engendered by the protracted and vicious war which began when President Yeltsin sent in his troops in 1995. Previous elections, under the jurisdiction of the pro Moscow Chechen leader, Mr Doku Zavgayev had been blatantly rigged and declared "unfree and unfair" by the teams of international observers who were courageous enough to attend them. That such progress towards democracy should be made in so short a time is worthy of congratulation.

The new president, Mr Aslan Maskhadov, comes from a military background. A former colonel in the Soviet Army, he was once the comrade in arms of many of those officers who opposed him in the recent war. His military tactics allied to a sharp political brain have brought Chechnya to the stage in which it has de facto independence, following the withdrawal of Russian troops. The next stage in the process is the resumption of talks between Moscow and Grozny on the territory's future status, with discussion of full independence ruled out for five years.

Already Mr Maskhadov has raised the independence issue in what appears to be a breach, verbally at least, of the agreement reached at Khasav Yurt between himself and Gen Alexander Lebed, then Mr Yeltsin's ally but now his foe. There appear to have been breaches on the Russian side too, particularly in the economic domain. Rail traffic has not been fully restored, the Caspian Black Sea oil pipeline has not been reopened and public servants in Chechnya have not been paid. Post war Chechnya is in a pitiable state, physically and economically, and is dependent on the economic provisions of the peace treaty. Russia holds the purse strings and there are indications that these will be used to wring compromises on the region's status from the new president.

Mr Maskhadov was the most moderate candidate in the election. The desire for moderation on the part of the Chechen people was strongly indicated in the massive support they gave him despite the fact that he did little campaigning on the ground and did not take a single advertisement on television. Overplaying the economic card could quickly dissipate the current desire for compromise and peace. Mr Maskhadov in his early talk of independence and sovereignty is looking over his shoulder at more militant local politicians who have the support of large groups of heavily armed young men.

There are those in Russia, not merely the ultranationalists of Mr Vladimir Zhirinovsky nor the nationalistic wing of the communists, who would not mind seeing a resumption of the war; some for reasons of battered pride, others for concerns of the pocket rather than the heart. To undermine confidence in Mr Maskhadov's mandate could be disastrous for Russia and for Chechnya.