To Pacify Chechnya, Russia Tries Ballots Instead of Bullets

But rushed and suspect elections may not end fighting

A YEAR after Russian troops unleashed wholesale war on this breakaway republic, machine guns still thud-thud the night after curfew. In the pitch-dark of Chechnya's capital Grozny, the only light is the moon through ruined windows, occasional headlights, and small bonfires of young Russian conscripts behind barricades of concrete debris and old radiators.

These petrified young soldiers don't want to be here. They and their regular vodka binges make life even more miserable for the Chechens. And in Moscow, the unpopular Russian political leadership that launched this war is eager to have it go away.

So the Russians are changing strategy in a region it has tried to subdue by force for more than 250 years. In less than two weeks, Chechens will hold elections for the head of their republic and their representative in the Russian parliament. If it works as the Yeltsin administration hopes, Chechnya will become a political problem between Chechens, while at the same time Chechnya will accept its status as part of Russia - although barely.

But the Kremlin-backed Chechen leaders are rushing these elections months ahead of when almost anyone in Chechnya believes they should be held. Threats of violence have intensified. The legitimacy of any winner will be open to doubt. Says one Westerner, "It will open the door to civil war again. We'll be right back to square one.''

The massive military assault destroyed much of Grozny well beyond the waste visited on places like Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It drove the rebel Chechen government into the hills and created an armed Russian occupation punctuated with a few casualties on either side every night and occasional acts of sabotage by the rebel forces.

The elections will not meet international standards. The Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, which was holding the only active negotiations between the Russians and rebel Chechen President Dzhokar Dudayev, has decided not to monitor these elections at all.

The safety of observers cannot be guaranteed, and the basic conditions for free and fair elections are not met. Because of threats by Mr. Dudayev and his followers, voters in many regions have reason to fear going to the polls. And there is no basic national reconciliation, much less a constitution, undergirding the elections. Whole regions are likely to follow Dudayev's lead and boycott the elections.

'Elections - but not these elections'

In the muddy towns and villages south of Grozny, in the majestic shadow of the snow-covered Caucasus Mountains, the thunder of shelling rumbles in the foothills, and people tend to support Dudayev. "We need elections, but not like this" - not surrounded by Russian troops who steal cows and sheep, take food at the market without paying, and demand cigarettes and vodka at checkpoints - says Saykhan Khasbulatov, a forester in Urus Martan.

In the Chechen town of Ashkhoi Martan, a Dudayev stronghold, there are two regional headquarters. One is the regional administration that answers to the Moscow-appointed head of the government and a leading candidate in the elections. The other is a ragtag group of heavily armed men in a building that proclaims over the door to be the headquarters of the self-defense force of this region of "Ichkeria," the Dudayevite name for Chechnya.

Twenty-five men with assault rifles always on their laps or at their sides sit in an office with a teapot on a burner and insist that there will be no elections on Dec. 17. But the region already has submitted voter lists and a polling point is planned in town.

The military commander, Vakha Merzhoyev, a beefy, bearded man in green fatigues, says they are friendly with the other administration and visit each other sometimes for tea. People who vote are either traitors or just crazy, he says, but the Dudayev side will not exact any vengeance on them. But Mr. Merzhoyev also says that if elections are held, his forces will burn the polling places. Those that they can't reach because of roadblocks, they will hit with rockets. He smiles. The other fighters in the room chuckle slightly. He leaves it unclear whether he is exaggerating or merely joking, but he would be happy to be taken seriously.

A country under military occupation cannot have free and fair elections, he says. "If the elections will be falsified, then there will be a war," he adds.

In Grozny, voting will be much higher and support is much stronger for the candidacy of the current Russian-appointed head of government, Doku Zavgayev. Mr. Zavgayev was the head of the Chechen Supreme Soviet before Dudayev came to power, and the Soviet Union fell apart. In Grozny, those are remembered as much better years, and Zavgayev is viewed as a strong and experienced administrator with the right ties in Moscow to bring subsidies to Chechnya.

A wild-card candidate

One exile to neighboring Azerbaijan, back visiting friends in Grozny, even says he would move back if Zavgayev wins, although his wife disagrees.

Zavgayev is clearly Moscow's favored candidate - one reason for a near-miss attempt on his life at a Grozny bridge recently. The other major candidate is probably even more popular, but his voters are outside the city and less likely to vote. He is Ruslan Khasbulatov, who was speaker of the Russian Supreme Soviet when staged a parliamentary rebellion against the Yeltsin administration in 1993.

He is a wild card. His presence in the race adds legitimacy to an election that otherwise would have only one major candidate. But he also could win, putting a longtime Yeltsin foe at the head of the republic.

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