On August 23, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree designating November 24 as the date for parliamentary elections in Chechnya. Like previous campaigns—including the referendum on the pro-Russian Constitution and presidential elections—this poll is very important to the Kremlin. Despite daily clashes between Russian troops and Chechen fighters, President Putin is eager to demonstrate that the war is over, the political process is underway, and the situation is returning to normal.
Putin believes “the upcoming parliamentary elections in Chechnya will be another serious step towards the political reconciliation in the republic.” “The future parliament should represent all political forces oriented in their activities towards the revival of the republic,” he said in remarks reported by Golos Rossii on August 22. State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov echoed similar themes, arguing that “the elections will make democracy stronger in the republic.” The implication was clear: any faction recognizing Chechnya as part of the Russian Federation would be free to take part in the campaign.
Yet despite statements by Russian officials to the contrary, pro-Russian candidates opposed to the current Chechen leadership have little chance of success. This summer, for example, Beslan Gantamirov declared that he would take part in the elections as a regional leader of the opposition Rodina, or Motherland, party. Yet even his mild criticism of Russian policy in the region invited political retaliation, with armed men loyal to Chechen First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov arbitrarily raiding Gantamoriv’s family home. So long as Kadyrov is permitted to use similar tactics against other pro-Russian factions, there little chance of a free and unfettered election.
Analysis by the Kavkazky Uzel website indicates that the pro-Putin United Russia party will win a majority in the Chechen parliament. In April the site reported the party’s growing strength, following the installation of Chechen President Alu Alkhanov, Ramzan Kadyrov, and thirty other high-ranking pro-Moscow Chechen officials as members of the party’s Political Council. Other analysts reach similar conclusions. In a September 2 interview with Nezavisimya gazeta, Aleksei Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center said he doubted that the elections in Chechnya would be free.
Even if the Kremlin’s role in orchestrating elections is just gaining recognition in Moscow, it is clearly understood in Chechnya. For now, however, the primary challenge for Kremlin officials is not to restrain their political adversaries, but to convince ordinary Chechens to go to the polls. This is no easy task, especially considering Alkhanov and Kadyrov’s widespread unpopularity. According to an August 25 report by lenta.ru, Chechen State Council Chairman Taus Dzhabrailov—the official personal responsible for ensuring a successful election—admitted that 90 percent of the Chechen population dislikes the pro-Moscow regional administration.
A campaign to curb that animus is now underway. The first step was taken by Ramzan Kadyrov, issuing a decree banning slot machines in Chechnya. The official reason was that gambling is incompatible with Islamic morality. In truth, the object was to demonstrate that the pro-Russian leaders respect Islamic values and Islam as a religion. Another step was to idolize Akhmad Kadyrov, the first Chechen president to be elected under the pro-Russian constitution. Officials unveiled a monument to him in the center of Grozny earlier this year.
These cosmetic efforts are unlikely to win support from ordinary Chechens, especially while the Republic’s greatest problem—disappearances—remains unsolved. Russian authorities are aware of the dilemma, and have openly pledged to stop the wave of kidnappings. On August 30 Interfax quoted remarks by Arkady Edelev, chief of staff for Anti-Terrorist Operations in the North Caucasus, indicating that the number of kidnapping crimes had significantly decreased in Chechnya. Efforts are also underway to root out officials involved in kidnapping rings. Recent sting operations in the village of Znamenskoe led to the arrest of several policemen. An August 31 report by kavkaz.strana.ru indicated that several officials from the local prosecutor’s office suspected of cooperating with police kidnappers were fired.
Also notable are recent remarks by regional authorities concerning the suffering of the Chechen people during the decade-long war with Russia. On August 15, Taus Dzhabrailov recalled thousands of victims of the conflict (see Chechnya Weekly, August 18). On September 1, the Russian Supreme Court overturned the acquittal of Eduard Ulman, the Russian officer whose unit killed and burned six Chechen civilians in 2002. On August 31, Kavkazky Uzel quoted Ella Panfilova, an advisor to the Russian president on human rights, saying that “while talking about children of Beslan one should not forget about the sufferings of Chechen children.” These statements about the sufferings were made in parallel with adjuration that the parliamentary elections will solve Chechnya’s problems. “The deficiency of the parliament is the main reason for the misfortunes of the Chechen people,” said Dzhabrailov in a statement reported by the Regnum news agency on August 24.
It is unlikely that the Chechens will be deceived by such concessions. The Kremlin recognizes this. On August 29, Nikolai Rogozhkin, commander of the Russian Interior Ministry troops, announced that the federal forces would guarantee security during Chechnya’s parliamentary elections in Chechnya. Yet while Rogozhkin boasted that his troops had prevented large-scale operations by the rebels this summer, sources in the Chechen branch of the Federal Security Service (FSB) told kavkaz.strana.ru that the gunmen were preparing for a massive offensive in the Caucasus this fall. “However sad it may be,” the website reported, “the underground network of Chechen warlord Shamil Basaev not only managed to survive this summer, but is becoming more and more active.” So long as the resistance remains viable, armed force seems a necessary precondition for securing the ballot.
Another serious problem too is providing security for dozens of parliamentary deputies—a task far more difficult than protecting one president. It is still unclear where the future parliament will hold its sessions. There is no space for it in the heavily guarded government headquarters in Grozny, and even this facility may not be safe enough. Militants attacked the government center in broad daylight at least four times during the last three months. In the latest attack on August 30, fighters used grenade launchers and machine guns.
At this juncture, one cannot discount the possibility that hostilities will increase as the elections draw near. Unfortunately, the military realities seem unlikely to divert Moscow from its current course. A victim of it own rhetoric, the Kremlin clings to the illusion that the Chechens are tired of war and will support its handpicked local cadre—many of whom ordinary Chechens hate and regard as traitors. For the Russian government, wishful thinking seems a less taxing prospect than political dialogue with the separatist forces that continue to command the public’s imagination and support.