Chechen vote puts spotlight on Kremlin problem

Sunday's vote came as Russia continues its probe into the dual jet bombings.

As voters went to the polls Sunday in Chechnya, there was little doubt about who would be anointed president of the embattled Russian republic: Moscow's choice is interior minister Alu Alkhanov.

Security concerns kept many Chechens from taking part in the election meant to replace Akhmad Kadyrov, whose death in a bomb blast last May has rocked the Kremlin's strategy on Chechnya.

But analysts say that none of the seven candidates - Maj. Gen. Alkhanov included - have a fraction of the warlord reputation that Mr. Kadyrov brought to the job.

And as rebel strikes continue to escalate, questions are being raised anew about Russian President Vladimir Putin's shrinking options for getting out of the quagmire.

While officials have not yet blamed guerrillas for the bombs that brought down two passenger jets Tuesday, killing 89 people, investigators are focusing on two Chechen women passengers, and say that the explosives match those of previous Chechen attacks.

"This election is not part of a democratic process; this is a result of a terror act - the assassination of Akhmad Kadyrov," says Fiona Hill at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Everything that has happened [since then] points to an escalation."

This year alone, Russia has been rocked by the Kadyrov assassination, a February subway bombing that killed 39, rebel raids in neighboring Ingushetia and the capital Grozny, which left scores of Chechen police and federal troops dead.

"Putin is running out of options - that's a sad fact," says Ms. Hill. While a Chechen connection to the bombed planes "gives [the Kremlin] more ammunition to keep pushing the idea that the Chechens are just one large, undifferentiated terrorist group ... it doesn't solve their problems."

The job of Chechnya's president may be one of the most dangerous: Three out of the last four have been killed. And violence is never far away. Sunday a man blew himself up outside a polling station.

"It's clear that Putin's policy had its own internal logic - until what happened to Kadyrov," says Oksana Antonenko, head of the Russia and Eurasia program at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London.

That policy was based on the assumption that, five years into Russia's second brutal war in Chechnya in a decade, a military solution was possible. Another assumption, Ms. Antonenko says, was that a political process "managed completely out of Moscow that doesn't have internal legitimacy" could manage the rebels.

"We are at a point where the Russian people aren't secure, and the situation in Chechnya is insecure," so the vote is merely an "attempt to continue a strategy that has really failed," says Antonenko. "There is no new thinking at all around Putin of what to do about Chechnya."

Putin has long rejected negotiations with Chechen rebels, moderate or radical. Kadyrov, too, had refused talks. It's a position at odds with recent polling that suggests two-thirds of Russians favor a political process as a way out. But Alkhanov has stated that he has no problem talking with moderate Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, who was elected in 1997 but is now accused of terrorism by Moscow.

"It would be unreasonable to expect at this stage a dialogue between a Chechen leader completely controlled by Moscow and the rebels," says Antonenko. "It really needs to be between Moscow and various rebel groups. But it's hard, because the Chechen resistance is so splintered - that's another downside of Putin's policy."

Kadyrov was "elected" in a vote last October that was widely seen as rigged. Key opponents were kept off the ballot and he dominated the airwaves. Now Alkhanov has had all the same advantages.

"The message from the Kremlin is, 'Under control, life is returning to normal,' and this is in contrast to every report we get from the ground," says Sarah Mendelson, a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Please use quotation marks around 'vote,' because in this case the Kremlin is definitely going to get what it wants."

CSIS has helped conduct frequent surveys since 2001 about what Russians think of the war in Chechnya, among other issues. More than half say they know someone who served in Chechnya.

"The conventional wisdom is that Russians will bear anything," says Ms. Mendelson. "[But] people know what's going on, they know it's not normalized - that their boys are continuing to die - and this is what is very disturbing to Russians."

Demographic changes are also shifting the dynamic away from Moscow's favor, with a birthrate in Chechnya five times as great as that any in Russia, and a widespread breakdown in education services, says Hill at Brookings.

"You've got a population bulge in a region with very little prospects, and a group of people [in Chechnya] who have no positive feelings toward Russia whatsoever," says Hill. "It's this younger generation that is spitting out these ultraterrorists who are willing to die for a cause ... [and] there are more where they came from."

"In Kadyrov, you had a tough guy, a man who could crush everybody under his fist, and had a certain standing," says Hill. "But now Alkhanov seems a lot weaker. You've lost your strongman, who for better or worse, was creating some kind of stability. Where do you go from here? You're running out of personnel."

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