Chechen polls expected to hand clear victory to Moscow

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War-weary Chechnya goes to the polls today to do something it has not had the opportunity to do for eight traumatic years: elect a parliament.

The vote is the final phase in the Kremlin's three-step plan to bring the separatist republic back into the Russian fold after two brutal wars against secessionists in the past 11 years.

The last time that Chechens held an election was in 1997 and some of die-hard separatist fighters have condemned the vote as a "pseudo-election". President Vladimir Putin of Russia hopes the ballot will mark what Moscow calls the "normalisation" of the Chechen problem, domestically and internationally, and that Chechnya's long-suffering population will support it out of a feeling that it has a stake in its own fate.

Phase one was a referendum in 2003 in which the mountainous, mainly Muslim, republic voted for political reintegration with the Russian Federation. Phase two was a presidential election the same year, which the Moscow loyalist, Akhmad Kadyrov, won. However, Mr Kadyrov was killed last year while reviewing a military parade. His successor, Alu Alkhanov, a former policeman, is seen as a temporary fixture who is keeping the seat warm for Mr Kadyrov's son, Ramzan, the commander of a 5,000-strong private army who has a reputation for brute force.

Ramzan could not assume his father's mantle immediately because the Chechen constitution says the president must be at least 30. Ramzan is due to come of age next year, however, when observers expect him to be appointed Chechen president.

Today's election is an important precursor to that moment and is expected to result in a clear victory for his - and Mr Putin's - party, United Russia. Unsurprisingly, Moscow barred candidates who support Chechnya's independence. But several rebels who took advantage of an amnesty, renounced violence and came down from the mountains were allowed to stand - proof, Moscow says, that the elections are a genuine, open contest. The former fighters were only allowed to stand after they had accepted that Chechnya will remain part of Russia.

Polls show many Chechens have doubts about the fairness of the elections. So does the West. Although international observers from various former Soviet republics, Asia and the Middle East will be present, Western observers will not. The European Union said it is formulating its position on Russia's Chechnya policy while the Council of Europe said it doubted the vote could be deemed free and fair while extreme violence remained an everyday phenomenon.

The council's remarks referred in part to the kidnapping rife in the republic. Human rights activists claim that more than 200 people were abducted this year alone. Many are still missing. Federal troops and Chechnya's Moscow-backed police have repeatedly been accused of complicity in the kidnappings, which they deny.

The run-up to the election was marred by an incident in which drunken federal soldiers robbed local people at gunpoint and shot dead three Chechen civilians.