Russia's Next Step in Chechnya

Within days of this week's fatal terrorist attack on Chechnya's leader, Russian President Vladimir Putin flew to the war-torn Muslim province - his first visit in more than three years.

He remarked that the bomb-scarred Chechen capital of Grozny "looks horrible from a helicopter."

One could chide Mr. Putin for sounding as if he had just discovered the misery of the independent-minded Chechens - who for 10 years have been fighting an insurgency against thousands of Russian troops in their homeland.

Or one could hope instead that Putin's eyes have truly been opened by his visit to the semiautonomous - but not independent - province. For nothing short of a new vision will see a way out of the oppression and violence trapping a million people, and costing Russia rubles, lives, and expanded ties with Europe and the US.

Putin has shown himself capable of reassessing Chechnya. Two invasions taught him that Moscow could not control the province. So he switched to "Chechenization" - relying on a native Chechen, former rebel leader Akhmad Kadyrov, to run things while towing the Moscow line. That strategy literally blew up Sunday when a bomb killed Mr. Kadyrov.

Putin got part of Chechenization right - that rule has to come from the province itself. But he would do well to recognize the grave mistake of having depended on a single, Kremlin-backed strongman brought to power through a fraudulent election.

The next logical step would be a truly representative government. Putin has his opportunity in the next election of a new Chechen leader, which must occur by Sept. 5. This time, the election must be fair, the net of candidates cast wide.

The international community, the Chechen diaspora and Chechnya's clan leaders should work to make the election meaningful. But Putin must take the first step in this direction.

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