Chechens euphoric in vote for freedom

`People rushed to polling booths, erected amidst the ruins of their homes'

Hundreds of thousands of Chechens swamped polling booths yesterday for a historic election to choose their own leader and send a defiant message to Russia that they now belong to an independent nation.

A wave of euphoria swept across the small Caucasus republic throughout a festive and frantic day that Chechens seem certain to remember as the moment they sealed their de facto victory in the 21-month war with Russia.

Such was the multitude which descended on voting stations, many struggling in from far-flung, bombed-out villages in rickety cars and buses, that the electoral authorities last night kept the polls open for an extra two hours until 10pm.

Although last year's peace accord with Moscow deferred the settlement of Chechnya's status for five years, yesterday's elections for president and parliament were seen by Chechens as evidence that the million-strong Islamic mountain republic has acquired nationhood.

Taisa Karsamayali, a middle-aged woman wrapped in a fox fur against the -5C temperatures, resented being made to vote in Soviet times when the elections were rigged and the candidates were stooges. But yesterday was different: "Today is like a holiday. It was pure joy, because I was voting for independence and for my own country. It was a very important day for us."

She had voted for Aslan Maskhadov, the former separatist chief-of-staff who is the favourite and Moscow's choice, as he is viewed as the most moderate of the five leading candidates. But like most who have endured almost two years of Russian bombs and bullets, she said she would be happy with the outcome no matter who won, even if it was Shamil Basayev, the popular Chechen field commander, whom Russia has branded a terrorist.

Ms Karsamayali, a judge, was standing in brilliant sunshine outside voting station number 41, a gutted general store in Grozny, the capital. The store was being used for refugees from three outlying villages wrecked by Russian bombs during the war, Atchkoi, Yandi and Bamut. Within, the activity was feverish and the enthusiasm palpable.

Grandmothers, middle-aged men in sheepskin hats and dapper young women queued before the curtained booths, coloured bright green, like the Chechen flag, before posting their ballots into boxes and having their right hands sprayed with indelible ink.

Adam Ismaelov, 30, a former Chechen separatist fighter, was at the front. He still carried his sub-machine gun slung over his black leather jacket. He said hewould probably choose the interim president, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, the right-hand man of Dzhokar Dudayev, the former Soviet air force general who led Chechnya's drive for independence until his assassination nine months ago. (Grozny has since been renamed Dzhokar-Ghala - "the city of Dzhokar", in his honour). But he added: "It makes no difference to me. All the candidates are like brothers."

The election official in charge of the station, Vakhar Gaysumov, himself a refugee, could barely contain his excitement. He proudly showed off his two armed guards who would escort the ballot boxes to the regional counting centre; the three assistants - women, wrapped in huge coats against the freezing cold, filling out lists at a table; the register of 496 names, compiled by word of mouth. Voters left off the list lined up to register, clutching dog-eared old Soviet passports.

Like almost every Chechen,he was desperate to show visiting journalists and thus the outside world that the election was organised and wholly fair. A verdict on that will be delivered by the 72 international observers who came to Chechnya under the auspices of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

But there were no complaints from the voters as they rushed to polling booths, erected amidst the ruins of their homes. Even interviews with a handful of Grozny's ethnic Russians, among the minority of Russian who stayed on in Chechnya after the war, produced no grievances.

Yesterday, to the annoyance of many in Moscow, Chechnya celebrated its day of liberation. How long the euphoria will last in a republic that needs Moscow's help to rebuild its shattered infrastructure is another question.

Yesterday the Chechens forgot the ruins around them, the lack of jobs and their wrecked economy. However, that sense of triumph will be impossible to sustain.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
News
people
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced