Chechen War's Finale: 'Terrorist' Stumps For Votes

Monday's election in Chechnya caps Russia's defeat after the 21-month-long war in this oil-rich region

The elegant young man with the neatly trimmed beard, his smart gray woolen overcoat keeping the snow off as he jokes with a crowd of admirers, hardly looks like Russia's most wanted terrorist.

Standing on the steps of the red-brick mosque in this village south of Grozny, delivering his standard stump speech as he campaigns for president, the candidate reels off promises of better days to come for war-ravaged Chechnya like a practiced pol.

But Shamil Basayev, the guerrilla leader whom Chechens most revered and Russians most despised during Chechnya's 21-month war for independence from Moscow, has changed his spots. (Close-up on Chechnya, Page 7.)

In August 1995, Mr. Basayev shot to international prominence by leading a daring and brutal raid on the Russian town of Budyonnovsk, killing over 100 people and seizing 1,200 hostages in a hospital before negotiating his way home.

Today, Basayev's distaste for Moscow runs as deep as ever.

But he has cast off his bandit bravado, boned up on enough instant economics to impress the voters, and is mounting a strong challenge to more experienced leaders in Chechnya's presidential elections, to be held on Monday.

Running on valor

Basayev earned a reputation as a decisive and courageous field commander - it was he who recaptured Grozny from Russian forces last August and finally convinced the Kremlin that it could not win the war - and he is unrivaled as a national hero.

His uncompromising image also appeals to voters fed up with a wave of lawlessness that has plagued Chechnya since the war ended in August. A plethora of guns, a lack of jobs, and the absence of any real government have conspired to raise the crime rate alarmingly.

"Basayev is rough and tough," says one supporter, Manja Lomaleyava. "He'll impose strong law, and that's what we need to put us on the right path."

The instruments of such "strong law" are evident wherever Basayev goes: Guerrillas loyal to him were posted at key points around villages where he spoke on Wednesday, and he was shadowed by bodyguards traveling in a Humvee, the most modern US Army jeep.

But Basayev is doing his best to look like more than just a good man in a fight. Gone are his trademark camouflage fatigues, headband, and bush hat. Instead, the candidate wears a collar and tie beneath his silk scarf, and a mink shapka on his head.

He speaks easily and confidently to his audiences in Chechnya, and happily takes questions from the crowd.

Everyone addresses him familiarly as Shamil, as if he were one of the family, and at campaign meetings in two villages on Wednesday, none of the questions were remotely hostile.

Sweet talk vs. straight talk

Basayev's answers, however, tended more toward electoral sweet talk than the straight-shooting for which he is famous. Pulling numbers from the air he pledged to give each Chechen $10,000 from the proceeds of his planned privatization program, and promised to extract the $700 billion that he claims Russia owes Chechnya.

He also dismissed the terms of August's peace treaty, under which Russian troops withdrew from Chechnya and both sides agreed to leave the question of the republic's status - independent or not - undecided until 2001.

"There is no need to talk about delayed status," he told the crowd here. "We are completely separate and independent."

Kremlin angst

The prospect of a man like this becoming the president of Chechnya fills the Kremlin's heart with horror, of course.

That, to a Chechen, is a large part of Basayev's attraction.

But even among his admirers, many wonder whether they would be best served over the difficult next few years of reconstruction by a leader mainly motivated by a desire to thumb his nose at the Russians.

Man of big promises

He could not resist that urge here again on Wednesday, as he closed his last campaign meeting of the day.

Scoffing at the enormous difficulties of the shattered republic in the absence of any assistance from Moscow, he boasted extravagantly that "by next autumn, it will be we who will be providing humanitarian assistance to the Russians."

His listeners laughed hard. And wished just as hard that Shamil's predictions as a politician were as realistic as his military foresight.

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