Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

To Pacify Chechnya, Russia Tries Ballots Instead of Bullets but Rushed and Suspect Elections May Not End Fighting

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

To Pacify Chechnya, Russia Tries Ballots Instead of Bullets but Rushed and Suspect Elections May Not End Fighting

Article excerpt

A YEAR after Russian troops unleashed wholesale war on this breakaway republic, machine guns still thud-thud the night after curfew. In the pitch-dark of Chechnya's capital Grozny, the only light is the moon through ruined windows, occasional headlights, and small bonfires of young Russian conscripts behind barricades of concrete debris and old radiators.

These petrified young soldiers don't want to be here. They and their regular vodka binges make life even more miserable for the Chechens. And in Moscow, the unpopular Russian political leadership that launched this war is eager to have it go away.

So the Russians are changing strategy in a region it has tried to subdue by force for more than 250 years. In less than two weeks, Chechens will hold elections for the head of their republic and their representative in the Russian parliament. If it works as the Yeltsin administration hopes, Chechnya will become a political problem between Chechens, while at the same time Chechnya will accept its status as part of Russia - although barely.

But the Kremlin-backed Chechen leaders are rushing these elections months ahead of when almost anyone in Chechnya believes they should be held. Threats of violence have intensified. The legitimacy of any winner will be open to doubt. Says one Westerner, "It will open the door to civil war again. We'll be right back to square one."

The massive military assault destroyed much of Grozny well beyond the waste visited on places like Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It drove the rebel Chechen government into the hills and created an armed Russian occupation punctuated with a few casualties on either side every night and occasional acts of sabotage by the rebel forces.

The elections will not meet international standards. The Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, which was holding the only active negotiations between the Russians and rebel Chechen President Dzhokar Dudayev, has decided not to monitor these elections at all.

The safety of observers cannot be guaranteed, and the basic conditions for free and fair elections are not met. Because of threats by Mr. Dudayev and his followers, voters in many regions have reason to fear going to the polls. And there is no basic national reconciliation, much less a constitution, undergirding the elections. Whole regions are likely to follow Dudayev's lead and boycott the elections.

'Elections - but not these elections'

In the muddy towns and villages south of Grozny, in the majestic shadow of the snow-covered Caucasus Mountains, the thunder of shelling rumbles in the foothills, and people tend to support Dudayev. "We need elections, but not like this" - not surrounded by Russian troops who steal cows and sheep, take food at the market without paying, and demand cigarettes and vodka at checkpoints - says Saykhan Khasbulatov, a forester in Urus Martan. …

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