Khasbulatov rejects 'bloodstained' poll

Chechnya: Still no settlement as republic remembers a year of slaughter

One year after sending tanks and troops to Chechnya, President Boris Yeltsin is attempting to build a fresh relationship with the separatist Caucasian region. But his hopes of achieving a settlement took a blow at the weekend when a top contender for the regional leadership, Ruslan Khasbulatov, said he was pulling out of planned elections because they were fraught with the risk of renewed bloodshed.

"By calling this poll, Moscow and the regional authorities are preparing conditions for the resumption of hostilities," Mr Khasbulatov said on Saturday. "I will not take part in these bloodstained elections.''

Although Mr Khasbulatov is an old enemy of the Russian President - he led the parliamentary uprising in Moscow in 1993, which Mr Yeltsin crushed with tanks - the Kremlin leader will be sorry to see him quitting the election race in Chechnya. Mr Yeltsin had given his blessing to Mr Khasbulatov resuming his political career in his native region and the candidacy of this famous figure would have raised public interest in the poll.

Now it seems certain that turn-out will be very low for the election of a Chechen leader, set to coincide with a nationwide vote for a new Russian parliament on 17 December. The Chechen separatist leader, General Dzhokhar Dudayev, has vowed to disrupt the local leadership election, in which the head of the pro-Moscow administration, Doku Zavgayev, now remains the only significant candidate.

Moscow got a taste of how the Chechen elections might be disrupted last week when a huge car bomb went off in the centre of Grozny, killing about a dozen people and injuring up to 60. Mr Yeltsin immediately called security chiefs to the sanitorium where he is convalescing after a heart attack and ordered heightened security for election day, not only in Chechnya but across Russia.

But the bomb was evidently enough to persuade Mr Khasbulatov that conditions are not yet ripe for a vote in his region.

Indeed, since the snowy Sunday afternoon exactly 12 months ago when Russian tanks trundled into Chechnya, very little has changed despite the colossal destruction inflicted on Grozny and the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians. General Dudayev remains at large, spitting defiance at the Kremlin and insisting that his Muslim people will settle for nothing short of full independence.

Moscow has offered increased autonomy but says it cannot afford to set the precedent of allowing one of its regions to leave the Russian Federation altogether. A ceasefire was agreed in the summer but it has been broken so often on both sides that in reality Chechnya is still at war.

Mr Yeltsin desperately needs to settle the conflict before Russian presidential elections next June, in which he may stand if his health allows. His aides have admitted that worry over Chechnya contributed to his heart problems.

But the unpopular war has not been politically fatal to Mr Yeltsin, as some pundits predicted at the start of the intervention. Last week the newspaper Sevodnya published an opinion poll showing a majority of Russians would still vote for him. It is not that he is loved, exactly. Rather that citizens fear anyone else would be worse.

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