It is difficult to muster any faith in Chechnya’s October presidential elections, considering how the recent census and the referendum were carried out. According to phone calls from an anti-Kadyrov observer in Chechnya, the situation in the republic is tense, with campaign workers for other candidates facing constant danger as they try to collect signatures and conduct election propaganda. Kadyrov himself is said to be everywhere. On state radio and television, his men spread out in newly opened election offices in villages, which are special outposts of intimidation. Signatures are collected with open harassment and beatings. Rumors are spreading that everyone who votes against Kadyrov will be punished later and that Kadyrov has bought key members of the election commission.
It is not easy to make out political platforms. The obvious issues are the ending of violence, reconstruction and the reunification of Chechen society. But clear statements on these issues are hard to come by. One of the initial candidates even said he would reveal his program for the reconstruction of Chechen society only after being elected. Most of the candidates have been less stingy, however, in their comments about each other. To assess the aspiring Chechen presidents’ potential to bring peace to the war torn republic, it is interesting to compare what they have to say about Kadyrov.
Malik Saidullaev, a highly visible and popular leader of the Chechen diaspora in Moscow who is known for his charitable work and support for the Chechen opposition press, has made a broad anti-Kadyrov initiative a central part of his strategy. Last week he boldly (and prematurely) announced a coalition of several candidates. These candidates, he said, would withdraw as a group in the case of dishonest elections, and might unite behind one candidate in the event of a second round–anything to prevent a victory by Kadyrov. And Saidullaev has not minced words in drawing attention to the danger that he says Kadyrov represents for Chechnya’s future. According to Saidullaev, even the conflict with the Russians has been overshadowed by the conflict between Chechnya’s civilian population and Kadyrov’s thugs. Kadyrov is hated even more than the Russians, and if he wins in October “Dudaev and Maskhadov will look like little flowers to Moscow.”
Aslan Aslakhanov, Chechnya’s deputy to the federal Duma and the second of the three “heavyweights” facing Kadyrov, also squarely criticized Kadyrov at the outset of his campaign. Aslakhanov joined the race at the last minute, announcing that Kadyrov’s refusal to engage in correspondence with him was one of his reasons. He said that he had sent a letter requesting that Kadyrov leave his post voluntarily, since he has proved unable to change life in the republic for the better. Kadyrov, however, failed to reply. Aslakhanov has announced that he might make a cash deposit of 4.5 million rubles (about US$150,000) in order to be put on the ballot. This is an alternative to collecting the signatures, one that is allowed by Chechen election laws. All the candidates must consider that signatures might be contested on some technicality, keeping them off the ballot.
Khusein Dzhabrailov, director general of the Moscow hotel complex Rossiya, shifted his campaign into high gear in July. The vestibules of the huge hotel near the Kremlin have been turned into informal campaign offices. There, small groups of men chat on cell phones, while emissaries from Sufi orders and Chechen elders briefly share space with western tourists. Dzhabrailov announced his candidacy only after consulting with elders and securing the support of a range of groups, including the Society of Descendants of Sheikhs of Chechnya, which he chairs. He stressed that he values Chechen traditions and religion above parties and ideologies. “The most important issue now is the return of spiritual values, of the traditions and customs of our ancestors,” he said. He considers the first task to be a dialogue within Chechen society: “We have to forgive each other, only then can a peaceful process begin.” Dzhabrailov is the only candidate thus far to suggest talking to the side that has been excluded from the election process: The separatist guerrillas. Moreover, his comments about Kadyrov are noticeably different from those of the other candidates in that he rejects the idea of an anti-Kadyrov coalition. If Kadyrov wins, Dzhabrailov said, “We must unite around him and work together.”
The situation in the republic is extremely unstable. Every week, dozens of rebel fighters and pro-Moscow soldiers die, helicopters are shot down, vehicles are blown up, buildings are attacked, and ordinary people as well as public servants are assassinated or disappear. Telephone calls from Grozny are punctuated by explosions. For now, the hope that the elections will be democratic and that peace and reconciliation will prevail seems like a dim light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel.
Michaela Pohl, who teaches Russian history at Vassar College, has written on the cultural survival of the Chechen diaspora in Kazakhstan.