Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 25

Elections in Chechnya: Will They Bring Stability or Further Conflict?

By Igor Rotar

The world will be watching closely on December 17th the outcomeof the State Duma election in Russia. On the same day, a leaderwill be chosen in the Chechen Republic.

On the day that the Chechen elections were announced, (November16), Russian Seurity Council secretary and Boris Yeltsin’s personalrepresentative to the Chechen Republic Oleg Lobov visited theRussian president in the hospital. Following this meeting Lobovannounced to journalists that: "Boris Nikolayevich deemsit expedient to hold elections in Chechnya on the day when electionswill be held in other regions of the Russian Federation. At thesame time we are not going to exert pressure on the Chechen leadership:If those in Grozny find it necessary to postpone the electionsuntil a later date we will not object."

The Moscow-appointed prime minister of Chechnya, Doku Zavgayev, does not want to postpone elections. Zavgayev came to power inChechnya in mid-October after the unexpected resignation of twoother Moscow appointees: National Revival Government ChairmanSalambek Khadzhiyev and National Accord Committee (a sort of aparliament) Chairman Umar Avturkhanov. Following their resignations,the former deputies of the defunct Checheno-Ingush AutonomousRepublic parliament convened and elected their former speaker,a former Communist Party senior secretary in the republic, DokuZavgayev, to the post of prime minister. After his "election,"Zavgayev told to journalists that "legitimate power structureshave been restored in Chechnya at last."

But the reality is not that simple. In the first place, accordingto all legal norms, the parliament of the Checheno-Ingush AutonomousSoviet Socialist Republic should have ceased to exist after theChecheno-Ingush Republic collapsed in 1991. Second, the deputiesthemselves, yielding to pressure from Ruslan Khasbulatov, votedfor self-dissolution not long after their election to office inOctober 1991.

Zavgayev, an experienced politician steeled by the Communistsystem, understands that his present position is shaky at bestand thus welcomes the elections to legitimize his government.

The reaction of the Dudayev camp to Moscow’s decision to holdelections in Chechnya was not long in coming. The Supreme Commanderof Dudayev’s army, Aslan Maskhadov, summed up the Dudayev positionin a few words: "If we are real men," he said, "weshall not allow these elections to be held."

Moscow’s announcement of elections in Chechnya prompted DzhokharDudayev, ostensibly president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria,to hold his first press conference in six months. Notably, themeeting with journalists was held in the Urus-Martan district.Not very long ago this district was a stronghold of anti-Dudayevopposition. Now it is controlled by Russian troops, an illustrationof the strength of Dudayev’s position.

During the press conference Dzhokhar Dudayev told journaliststhat relations between Chechnya and Russia "can be regulatedvery quickly, in 30 minutes, but the necessary condition for thatis that the Russian troops must be withdrawn from the territoryof the Chechnya-Ichkeria independent state." Asked his opinionabout the decision to hold elections, Dudayev replied: "Thismay result in bloodshed even in Moscow."

The Russian leadership would be ill-advised to underestimatethe threats coming from Dudayev and his men. Tensions in the republicclimbed sharply immediately following Moscow’s announcement.

"Recently Dudayev militants have fired on Russian outpostsmore frequently and more violently, and Dudayev militants takeRussian servicemen prisoner more often. Moreover, the militantsnow organize unprecedentedly bold attacks," Vladimir Zorin,first deputy chief of Russia’s Federal Executive Power in Chechnya, told a Prism correspondent.

The most chilling evidence of this trend was the November 19thattempt on the life of Doku Zavgayev. An explosive device detonatedbeside the road as Zavgayev’s motorcade passed through the centerof Grozny. Simultaneously, unidentified militants began firingon the motorcade from two directions. Two bodyguards were criticallywounded in the skirmish, and three cars were badly damaged. Zavgayevemerged with only slight injures. "This was done by thosewho are opposed to peaceful regulation in the republic,"Zavgayev said to journalists immediately after the incident.

Despite the increase in violence, preparations for the electionsare underway in Grozny. A far greatest hindrance to preparatorywork appears to be Russia’s haphazard style. For example, thelocal telephone exchange has cut off service to the Chechen CentralElections Committee for nonpayment of its bills. As a resultthe Committee officials cannot contact Moscow to clarify proceduralissues.

This is more than just an inconvenience, because no clear regulationsor procedures for electing a Chechen head of state exist in Grozny.The Law reads that "All citizens of the Chechen Republicwho are older than 18 are entitled to take part in the elections." However, no law on citizenship has ever been enacted inthe Chechen Republic, according to members of the Chechen ElectionsCommittee.

Moreover, this technical loophole opens to the door for Russiantroops to take part in the election. Russian authorities settledwhat had been a heated debate in Chechnya when it confirmed earlierthis week that as many as 50,000 Russian troops will vote alongwith Chechen residents. The participation of the troops virtuallyguarantees that voter turnout will reach 25 percent, therebymaking the election valid.

So despite the current uncertainty over procedures and despitethe possibility acts of terrorism by Dudayev militants, it appearsthat in Chechnya republican election will take place along withthe federal election.

Many Chechens welcome the election. Weary of the violence andchaos, a considerable part of the population in Chechnya believesthat even though it is not being conducted in the best of circumstances, it brings some hope that a legally elected power will returnthe republic to a peaceful life. "Certainly, it is an absurdidea to hold elections under the supervision of an occupationregime, but on the other hand this is still better than to simplywait and watch how the republic is dying!" was the opinionof many Chechens to whom I talked. This attitude is reminiscentof that of many Algerians toward a similar event in their homeland."A ballot is better than a bomb even if the election resultswould be a bit falsified," is how the French newspaper Liberasioncharacterized the mood surrounding elections in Algeria. ManyChechens would subscribe to this position.

Hard-core Dudayev supporters–those willing to pay any pricefor victory over the Russians–constitute barely one-third ofthe Chechen population. Most of these people are concentratedin the southern mountainous part of the republic, the regionfrom which Dudayev has traditionally drawn his supporters andwhich is today controlled by pro-Dudayev militants. It will beimpossible for the election to be held in this area. Dudayev’srepresentatives have already announced that they will view participationin the elections to be an act of treason. Commander of the Dudayevarmy on the Eastern Front and "hero of Budennovsk" ShamilBasayev told a Prism correspondent that any attempts toorganize elections will be viewed as a "state crime."

But elsewhere in Chechnya, the voter turnout is expected tobe relatively high.

The two major candidates for prime minster of the Chechen Republicare Doku Zavgayev and Ruslan Khasbulatov. Each of them has hisown stable following Zavgayev relies primarily on the supportof the population from his native Upper Terek District locatedin northern Chechnya. (It is important to note that this regionhas always been strongly anti-Dudayev. When Dzhokhar Dudayevseized power in 1991, the residents of the Upper Terek district,who were indignant about the removal of their fellow countrymanfrom power, would not recognize him as president of the republic.In fact, a kind of a micro-state formed in this part of Chechnya.This "state within state" was governed by local mayor and a leader of the anti-Dudayev group, Umar Avturkhanov.)

However, Zavgayev’s potential consituency is not limited to thatdistrict. Throughout the war-torn republic there are many peoplewho are nostalgic for the peaceful days of communism, whenfood was in abundance. Naturally, in people’s mind this era isassociated with Doku Zavgayev, who was the senior secretary ofthe Chechen CPSU Committee. Obviously Zavgayev will also be backedby the local Russian-speakers who are similarly nostalgic forthe pre-Dudayev, "Zavgayev period."

Khasbulatov’s potential constituency is mainly composed of peoplewho take a somewhat centrist position, i.e., somewhere betweenDudayev radicals and the conformists who support Zavgayev. Beforethe introduction of Russian troops in the republic, Ruslan Khasbulatovenjoyed the highest rating of popularity of any politician inChechnya. But becase the tragedy in Chechnya has caused peopleto shift toward the extremes, the "centrist" Khasbulatovhas lost a considerable part of his support.

Zavgayev has the added advantage of being Moscow’s favorite.Russian television recently broadcast an excerpt from a film showingZavgayev and Yeltsin in each other’s embraces. "Tears filledmy eyes when I saw that film," a Zavgayev supporter recounts."At that moment I was ready to forgive Yeltsin for the bloodhe had shed in Chechnya. At last, there is a politician in ourrepublic whom Moscow treats as equal!"

So the smart money rests with Zavgayev, although it would bea mistake to underestimate Khasbulatov. He is, in fact, a largerfigure on the political scene. If the former Russian supremesoviet chairman deftly carries out his election campaign he willprobably win part of Zavgayev’s electorate over to his side.

Interestingly, Zavgayev was not always the Russian government’sfavorite. In 1991, during the struggle between the Russian leadershipand that of the Soviet Union, Zavgayev supported Gorbachev. Dudayev,by condemning Zavgayev for supporting the August 1991 putsch leadersand by dissolving the Checheno-Ingush Supreme Soviet, won Yeltsin’ssupport. Hence Dudayev was installed to replace Zavgayev.

This is one of the great paradoxes in Russian politics today: The very Russian leaders who had 4 years ago contributed toZavgayev’s removal from power are now working to make him headof state in Chechnya. In 1995 Zavgayev is the Kremlin’s last greathope to have a popular, pro-Moscow local leader who can keep theChechen republic under control.

But Moscow’s hopes that Zavgayev will become the legitimateleader of the republic may well turn out to be an illusion. Thefact is that elections will only reinforce the split in Chechensociety.

And finally, Moscow’s decision to hold elections in Chechnyameans a complete disruption of the talks with Dudayev envoys,and thus an interruption of the truce. Contrary to the hopes ofthe Chechen people, the elections will therefore not bring peace,but will inevitably lead to the resumption of military action.

Igor Rotar is a correspondent for Izvestiya.