War-scarred Chechnya was turned into a Potemkin village yesterday as Russia staged rare parliamentary elections designed to draw a line under two brutal wars of secession.
The vote was the first time that Chechnya has been given the chance to elect a parliament in eight years. Until now the Kremlin considered it too volatile and the parliament's role was fulfilled by an appointed state council.
However Russia believes the republic is ready for more self-rule and is keen to portray the ballot as the start of a new, peaceful phase of reintegration.
Local officials' aspirations are more modest: they hope the event will go some way to altering Chechnya's image as an impoverished, dangerous Mad Max-like badland garrisoned by 80,000 Russian troops.
Separatist rebels have a different perspective; they have derided the elections as a farce and as a "pseudo-vote''. However a handful of former rebels who have renounced violence stood as candidates. The Kremlin said it proved that the elections were open to all.
Voting stations shown to the world media yesterday were quiet. Most voters who were present said they supported United Russia, the party of the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and the local pro-Moscow strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov. Poll stewards sometimes outnumbered voters.
A Russian official put the low number of voters down to the fact that most Chechnyans prefer to vote early in the morning because they are working in the farms in the afternoon.
The dearth of voters was compensated for by a bus packed with United Russia supporters laid on by the authorities who trailed international media representatives so as to give the impression of a higher and more pro-Moscow turnout. For a place where 70 per cent of the one million strong population is out of work, the mood was cheerful. Men donning traditional Chechnya sheepskin hats played folk songs on their accordions in polling stations while women danced fiery jigs.
The green, white and red Chechnya flag was often hung alongside the white, blue and red of the Russian federal tricolour, while posters showed Mr Putin shaking the hand of the pro-Moscow Chechnyan President, Alu Alkhanov. "I'm your Citizen Chechnyan,'' read one such poster.
The Kremlin also mobilised celebrity talent to enlist support, some of it questionable, in an attempt to portray the region as just another part of Russia. The boxer and convicted rapist Mike Tyson paid a surreal pre-election visit, and the authorities wooed an array of mainstream Russian pop stars to an enormous outdoor concert.
But selling Chechnya as a promising region remains challenging. A Utopian Soviet-style propaganda poster hanging forlornly on a wall near a polling station in Grozny showed why. The poster depicted cheerful Chechnyans doing things that people in most countries take for granted. A grinning cobbler proudly held up a brown leather shoe in one scene, an agricultural worker sprayed a field with pesticide in another, a builder enthusiastically laid bricks in yet another, and a teacher was shown eulogising about Chechnya's natural beauty to her class. Just to the right of the poster the reality of Chechnya was a reminder that life here is not quite like that. The shelled remains of apartment blocks and factories bombed by Russian planes as recently as 2000 scarred the roadside.
Preliminary results are due to be released today. Surveys suggest that United Russia will win. Sulumbek Ismailov, a United Russia supporter, said Chechnya's yearning to become independent had fizzled out. "Chechnya cannot exist without Russia. It's that simple,'' he said.Reuse content