After 5,000 Years, a Nation?


While the Chechen people have lived in the mountainous trans-Caucasus region since at least 3000 BC, Chechnya has never been a distinct nation-state.

In 1936, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin drew a border around Chechen and neighboring Ingush territory to create an autonomous republic within the Soviet Union.

During the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, then-Chechen President Dzhokar Dudayev declared independence, a claim denied by Russia.

In late 1994, Russia launched a massive air and ground assault on the Chechen capital. The war that followed was devastating, but the Chechens won. In August, Russia's then-security chief Alexander Lebed negotiated a peace settlement. The last Russian troops withdrew from Chechen territory a few weeks ago.

On Monday, Chechens will go to the polls to elect a new president and 63 members of parliament. The new authorities' powers are ill defined because of the vagueness of the peace treaty signed in August that ended the war.

The Chechens believe they are electing the new government of a sovereign and independent state they call Ichkeria. The Kremlin regards the vote as similar to local elections held all over the Russian Federation, in which a number of semiautonomous regions have their own presidents and legislatures.

Of the 16 presidential candidates, the four main contenders were part of the leadership that defeated the Russians, and all are campaigning on a platform of complete independence. They are:

* Zelimkhan Yanderbiyev, the current president, who took over from the independence struggle's first leader, Mr. Dudayev, when he was killed last April. As Dudayev's right-hand man, he was unanimously chosen to replace him while the war was still under way, but he now faces challenges from his colleagues.

* Aslan Maskhadov, a former Soviet Army colonel, who commanded Chechen guerrilla forces during the war, and who then led the Chechen negotiating team at peace talks with Moscow. Currently prime minister, his image is one of moderation and stability, and he is the candidate with whom the Kremlin would feel most comfortable.

* Shamil Basayev, a former mercenary. A charismatic and courageous field commander, he led some of the Chechen forces' most dramatic and successful operations to humiliate the Russian Army during the war.

* Movladi Udugov, minister of information, who acted as the Chechens' main spokesman throughout the war. He is running on the Islamic Order ticket, advocating the strict application of sharia, Islamic law.

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