Chechnya's Vote

This week's balloting in Chechnya represents a turning point for both that war-ravaged land and the massive country of which it is still, technically, a part.

The Chechens have now shown a firm determination to run their own affairs at the polling place, as well as on the battlefield. The voters turned out in droves, swamping many voting stations. But voting hours were extended to accommodate them all, and violence was absent.

Final results and assessments were still coming in at this writing, but the apparent victor is Aslan Maskhadov, who headed Chechen forces during the two-year war with Russia and who was perceived as the most moderate figure in a field of candidates dominated by war heroes. So far, observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have noted no irregularities in the voting.

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What next for Mr. Maskhadov, whose chief laurel is the peace deal with Russia, which he helped negotiate? His country lies in ruins. Some degree of economic viability has to be restored. The new president has little choice but to continue the process of dialogue with Russia, which signed the peace agreement but has shown no signs publicly of allowing Chechnya genuine independence. To the Chechens, however, independence is what this election was all about.

It will take all Maskhadov's shrewdness and instinct for negotiation to sustain a state of relatively peaceful coexistence with Moscow so that the rebuilding in Chechnya can commence. Without Russian acquiescence, a restoration of services and economic activity will be difficult, if not impossible. Outside aid isn't likely. The rest of the world, including Washington, still recognizes Chechnya as part of Russia. Fellow Muslim lands might sympathize, but they're not likely to court Russia's wrath.

For its part, Moscow is not likely to renew military action, but it could attempt the economic strangulation of Chechnya. A better tack would be for Russia to allow normal commerce, and at least keep the republic within its economic sphere. There's little prospect of Chechnya returning to a submissive role within the Russian Federation. Events have moved far beyond that.

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