Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Chechen War's Finale: 'Terrorist' Stumps for Votes Monday's Election in Chechnya Caps Russia's Defeat after the 21-Month-Long War in This Oil-Rich Region

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Chechen War's Finale: 'Terrorist' Stumps for Votes Monday's Election in Chechnya Caps Russia's Defeat after the 21-Month-Long War in This Oil-Rich Region

Article excerpt

The elegant young man with the neatly trimmed beard, his smart gray woolen overcoat keeping the snow off as he jokes with a crowd of admirers, hardly looks like Russia's most wanted terrorist.

Standing on the steps of the red-brick mosque in this village south of Grozny, delivering his standard stump speech as he campaigns for president, the candidate reels off promises of better days to come for war-ravaged Chechnya like a practiced pol.

But Shamil Basayev, the guerrilla leader whom Chechens most revered and Russians most despised during Chechnya's 21-month war for independence from Moscow, has changed his spots. (Close-up on Chechnya, Page 7.) In August 1995, Mr. Basayev shot to international prominence by leading a daring and brutal raid on the Russian town of Budyonnovsk, killing over 100 people and seizing 1,200 hostages in a hospital before negotiating his way home. Today, Basayev's distaste for Moscow runs as deep as ever. But he has cast off his bandit bravado, boned up on enough instant economics to impress the voters, and is mounting a strong challenge to more experienced leaders in Chechnya's presidential elections, to be held on Monday. Running on valor Basayev earned a reputation as a decisive and courageous field commander - it was he who recaptured Grozny from Russian forces last August and finally convinced the Kremlin that it could not win the war - and he is unrivaled as a national hero. His uncompromising image also appeals to voters fed up with a wave of lawlessness that has plagued Chechnya since the war ended in August. A plethora of guns, a lack of jobs, and the absence of any real government have conspired to raise the crime rate alarmingly. "Basayev is rough and tough," says one supporter, Manja Lomaleyava. "He'll impose strong law, and that's what we need to put us on the right path." The instruments of such "strong law" are evident wherever Basayev goes: Guerrillas loyal to him were posted at key points around villages where he spoke on Wednesday, and he was shadowed by bodyguards traveling in a Humvee, the most modern US Army jeep. But Basayev is doing his best to look like more than just a good man in a fight. …

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