Moscow nervous as Chechens vote for new leader

Russia's most wanted terrorist is among the candidates, writes Phil Reeves in Grozny
Had you asked anyone in the snow-clad streets of Grozny one year ago if they would be going to the polls today to determine the leader of what is, in all but law, their own nation, they would have laughed bitterly.

A year ago war, launched in late 1994 by Boris Yeltsin in a bid to crush Chechnya's independence, seemed doomed to grind on, adding noughts to the many thousands already on the death toll, while the rest of the world turned a blind eye.

Yet - six months after an unexpected peace deal - Chechens will today vote in the first round of an election to choose a leader from a list of 13 candidates, all of whom are separatists. Moscow is looking on in a state of nervousness, mindful that the final results could bring a disaster.

One of the two considered most likely to go through to the second round are Aslan Maskhadov, the former Chechen fighters' chief of staff, who is seen by the Kremlin as a moderate. But the other is Shamil Basayev, the guerrilla commander whom Russia still regards as its most wanted terrorist.

The election appears to have all the hallmarks of a genuine contest. Citizens of Grozny, once buried under rubble, have been engulfed by a tide of promotional literature, posters and rhetoric.

Every night Chechens have been settling down to watch hour after hour of election programmes, shot on shaky video cameras, on five channels.

All over Grozny the inhabitants of bombed out apartment blocks sit glued to unedited speeches, campaign rallies, discussion programmes. The city may have no running water, piles of fetid rubbish, no jobs, and precious few intact buildings, but it can at least lay claim to a highly educated electorate.

"We just want people to be able to chose," said Abdul Sinbarigov, a 31- year-old Chechen businessman, as he sat in the shell-scarred ninth floor apartment that is also the headquarters of AS, his two-man TV and radio station, (so named because of his initials.)

After the August peace deal, Mr Sinbarigov invested $70,000 (pounds 42,000) in electronic equipment, got a temporary broadcasting licence, and set about filling the airwaves with election-related programmes in the hope of persuading his countrymen to make the "right" choice. "If they don't, there won't be any more TV stations here, there will just be war," he remarks gloomily, as the sound of Rod Stewart's "You're The Star" boomed out from his radio station in a nearby bedroom.

The right choice, in his book, is Basayev. "He is able, pure and clean," he remarked, sitting beneath a sketch of a fanged and red-nosed Boris Yeltsin. References to Basayev's raid on a southern Russian town in which he seized more than 1,000 hostages, or his bank robberies, or aircraft hijacking, are waved away. "If you think he was a terrorist, then a million times more terrorist acts were carried out by the Russians."

It appears this sentiment is catching on. The 32-year-old Basayev, who has swapped his military fatigues for a sober grey coat, has proved a surprisingly effective campaigner.

The several thousand Chechens who turned out on Saturday to hear him speak, surrounded by gunmen, in Grozny's bullet-strewn central square listened in rapt silence, interrupted only by a rumble of laughter. Basayev is fond of jokes.

His rise is causing concern among his opponents. Islam Yaxkiev, an aide to Chechnya's interim president, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev - another leading contender - refused to answer questions about the guerrilla leader yesterday, beyond repeating: "The Chechen people will choose the President, and will continue to build an independent state."

Overriding everything is the desire for legitimacy. The candidates say they will work together, no matter who wins. The republic is desperate that the world should recognise the poll as the first step to nationhood. Some 60 international observers have arrived, despite the still unsolved murder by gunmen of six Red Cross workers as they slept in their beds in a rural hospital.

But recognition will be far harder if Basayev is the victor. In Moscow, there will be a howl of fury from the generals and opposition politicians who have long condemned the peace deal as a capitulation to criminals and terrorists. And there will be widespread allegations that the elections were illegal.

Leading politicians have already made that claim, citing the fact that many of the 300,000 Chechens living outside the republic as refugees will be unable to vote. Polling booths will be set up near the Chechen border in neighbouring republics, but not, for instance, in Moscow .

But Russia's long-term response is harder to gauge. The Yeltsin administration is unlikely to want to get embroiled in another crippling war, and will not want to send troops back into the republic, no matter how great the political pressure to do so.

Both Chechnya and Moscow both need a lasting agreement over the strategically crucial oil pipeline, which runs through the republic, and will transport Caspian oil to the West. But striking any kind of relationship will be extremely difficult.

That could however, be true, no matter who wins. Russia continues to maintain that Chechyna will remain part of the federation, although a final agreement on its status has been deferred until 2001. Yet if there is one thing that all the presidential wannabees agree on it is that the issue is already all but settled. "We will insist on being acknowledged as an independent sovereign state," said Aslan Maskhadov yesterday. And he is the moderate one.