Rigged elections and terrorist bombs prove the bankruptcy of Russia's policy in Chechnya

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The Independent Online

Nothing sums up Russia's failure in the troubled southern region of Chechnya more pointedly than the coincidence of two developments yesterday. The first was the announcement that President Putin's choice, Alu Alkhanov, had been elected Chechnya's new president by a landslide. The second was confirmation from Russia's security services that simultaneous plane crashes five days before the election were caused by explosives - most likely detonated by Chechen women suicide bombers.

Nothing sums up Russia's failure in the troubled southern region of Chechnya more pointedly than the coincidence of two developments yesterday. The first was the announcement that President Putin's choice, Alu Alkhanov, had been elected Chechnya's new president by a landslide. The second was confirmation from Russia's security services that simultaneous plane crashes five days before the election were caused by explosives - most likely detonated by Chechen women suicide bombers.

Neither announcement bodes well for the future of Chechnya, nor yet for its relations with Russia. Mr Alkhanov is Chechnya's former interior minister, which explains pretty much everything about his nomination. He was selected by Moscow as a strong man of known loyalties, familiar with the region. His instructions will doubtless be to impose order and not be too fussy how.

The election was a travesty of democratic process. The official 85 per cent turn-out would smack of Soviet-style electioneering even if it were thought credible by witnesses - which it is not. Of this, Mr Alkhanov won 74 per cent. He was not the sole candidate; Russian elections have progressed beyond the single-candidate scenario. But opposition candidates were excluded. And if Mr Alkhanov's democratic credentials are negligible, so are his chances of survival. His predecessor, Akhmad Kadyrov, was assassinated in May. Separatists vow that Mr Alkhanov will meet the same fate.

The air crashes supply new evidence of the militants' ruthless commitment to their cause - and of the continuing inadequacy of Russian airport security. According to initial information released by the security services, the two suspects arrived together late, and bought tickets for separate flights. Despite their Chechen names and papers, they were able to board.

The synchronised attacks and the early claim of responsibility from a hitherto unknown Islamic group might suggest a new source of outside funding or methods borrowed from al-Qa'ida. Whatever the truth, the reality is that Chechen militants have little need of outside funding or expertise. The Chechen conflict has bred its own volunteers, many of them women seeking vengeance for lost husbands, fathers and brothers. It has suited Mr Putin to treat the Chechen conflict as just one branch of the global "war" on terrorism after the attacks of 11 September 2001 in the United States. And there is a sense in which Chechen militancy is of a piece with other movements that target civilians to advance a separatist cause. But this does not mean that it is necessarily as intractable as Mr Putin appears to believe.

The very specific objectives of these movements are evidence of real discontent, but they also contain the seeds of a possible solution. Since he came to office, however, on the back of a promise to crack down on Chechen militants and keep Chechnya inside Russia, Mr Putin has treated the region exclusively as a military and policing problem, as a rebel to be crushed and punished, rather than as a potential partner. Each successive Chechen atrocity has only stiffened his resolve. Russian troops have been given almost free rein in Chechnya to slaughter and loot as they will. As for Russian casualties, Mr Putin defused an incipient anti-war movement by simple dint of declaring that in future only volunteers, not conscripts, would be sent to Chechnya.

It is clearly not realistic to hope for any peace initiative from the Kremlin in the week after 90 people on two planes are presumed to have died at the hands of Chechen suicide bombers. President Putin, no less than a British or US leader, has his political constituency to consider. Before too long, however, with a new, loyal, president installed in Chechnya, Mr Putin should take the risk. It would be in the interests of war-weary Chechens, in the interest of Russians and in the interest of Mr Putin himself to invite all parties to renounce violence and sit around a table to talk. If there is to be any end to the conflict, this is the only way it will happen.

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