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.