The acting president of Chechnya was seriously ill last night from an unidentified poison in what is suspected as an assassination attempt, one week before elections crucial to Russia's peace plan for the region.
Anatoly Popov, who was appointed Prime Minister of Chechnya this year, was taken to hospital on Saturday after a dinner to celebrate a gas pipeline opening. His doctors described his illness as "poisoning by a poison of unidentified origin".
Mr Popov served under the head of the region's pro-Moscow local administration, Akhmad Kadyrov, and took over as acting president during the campaign for next Sunday's presidential poll. Mr Kadyrov is the strong favourite after his main rivals either withdrew or were disqualified. Mr Popov is not running in the election.
Russia's Itar-Tass news agency, quoting military sources, said his condition was so serious he had been taken by helicopter to Russia's biggest military base in Chechnya, for an operation. The Kremlin is already citing next week's elections as proof that democracy and normality have returned to the tiny, mainly Muslim republic after over a decade of secessionist rebellion.
But some say Kremlin-backed machinations aimed at ensuring the election of its own placeman, Mr Kadyrov, have reduced the poll to a play with only one actor. "It is not an election, but a farce," says Lyudmilla Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Russia's oldest human rights watchdog, which has cancelled plans to send 300 observers to monitor the voting.
Four of the main candidates have mysteriously withdrawn or been ejected. In September, armed members of Mr Kadyrov's 2,000-man security force, headed by the leader's son Ramzan, occupied the offices of Chechnya's only TV station and all eight of the republic's newspapers.
Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow, said: "Chechnya is under Kadyrov's full control, and he has demonstrated that he can do whatever he wants. No elections are going to change that."
The republic's presidential elections were supposed to be the crowning moment in a one-sided peace process launched by the Kremlin a year ago, aimed at convincing the world that the four-year-old war is over and Chechens are freely deciding their own fate, with full rights guaranteed by Moscow.
Last March, a suspiciously high 96 per cent of Chechen voters turned out and gave 80 per cent endorsement to a new constitution, which grants Chechnya limited autonomy but cements it for ever as Russian territory.
Moscow's main objective was to sideline Chechnya's secessionist rebel movement and its leader, Aslan Maskhadov, who was elected in Chechnya's only free presidential poll in 1997. The Kremlin has consistently refused to negotiate with Mr Maskhadov, whom it accuses of backing terrorism, or to let his representatives take part in the republic's tightly controlled political process.