A Moscow-authored plan to restore law and order in the war-torn region of Chechnya is losing credibility fast. Local presidential elections slated for Oct. 5 are unraveling amid continuing conflict with rebels and allegations that the Kremlin has rigged the race.
In recent weeks four front-running candidates have mysteriously withdrawn or been ejected from Chechnya's troubled election, leaving the Kremlin-appointed acting president, Akhmad Kadyrov, as the almost certain winner.
"I am sorry that the Kremlin's earlier opinion that Kadyrov should face an open election has been substituted by another view [of] 'Let him win without competitors'," says Svetlana Gannushkina, a member of President Vladimir Putin's human rights advisory commission, who just returned from Chechnya.
The republic's presidential elections were supposed to be the crowning moment in a peace process launched by the Kremlin almost a year ago and aimed at convincing the world that Chechnya's decade-old independence bid is over and that the republic is returning to peace and normalcy under Moscow's rule.
Last March, a suspiciously high 96 per cent of Chechen voters turned out and gave 80 per cent endorsement to a new constitution, which grants Chechnya limited autonomy but cements it forever as Russian territory. While many experts were skeptical of the voting figures at the time, few doubted that many of Chechnya's exhausted and war-ravaged people yearned for peace - even on Moscow's terms.
Moscow's key objective was to sideline Chechnya's secessionist rebel movement and its leader, Aslan Maskhadov, who was elected in Chechnya's only free presidential polls, in 1997. The Kremlin has consistently refused to negotiate with Mr. Maskhadov, whom it accuses of backing terrorism, or to let his representatives take part in the republic's tightly controlled political process.
Chechen rebels continue kill about a dozen Russian troops weekly in Chechnya, and are thought to be behind a wave of suicide bombings this summer, which have killed about 300 people in Chechnya, nearby republics and in Moscow. In the latest incident, a powerful truck bomb exploded on Monday outside the headquarters of the Russian FSB security service in Magas, the capital of Ingushetia, next door to Chechnya, killing three people and wounding at least 25.
Critics say the Kremlin's failure to rein in its chosen strongman in Chechnya and ensure some semblance of free choice to Chechens has placed even the limited gains of its carefully-sculpted peace process in jeopardy. Kadyrov, a former rebel leader appointed by Moscow three years ago to head Chechnya's provisional government, has stacked official bodies with his own cronies and, human rights monitors say, launched a wave of violent intimidation of his rivals.
"The [Chechen population] is more scared of Kadyrov than of the military or terrorists," says Ms. Gannushkina, whose advisory commission sometimes contradicts the Kremlin. Ms. Gannushkina cites examples of campaign workers for rival presidential candidates who were beaten and detained by Kadyrov's security men.
One of the few independent opinion surveys on the election, by the Moscow-based Validata polling agency in Chechnya's 15 districts in June, found Kadyrov running a distant fourth in popularity. Since then, all the leading candidates have withdrawn from the race.
In the Validata poll, ex-Russian parliamentary speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov ranked first, chosen by 25.7 percent of Chechens. Mr. Khasbulatov, now an economics professor in Moscow, was the first to drop his candidacy, in July. "There are no conditions for holding honest elections in Chechnya," he says.
Next to go was Khusein Dzhabrailov, scion of a powerful Chechen business family, who was not included in the June poll but was said by experts to have serious support in the republic. He quit two weeks ago, telling journalists that he thought he could be more useful by directing his efforts "toward improving dialogue among Chechens."
Malik Saidullayev, a Moscow-based Chechen businessman who ranked second in the Validata survey with the support of 23.3 percent, was removed last week by Chechnya's supreme court after being accused of submitting phony signatures on his nomination form.
The only other serious contender, Aslanbek Aslakhanov, Chechnya's only deputy in the Russian State Duma, who polled 22.4 per cent in the June survey, quit the race last week after receiving a phone call from President Putin, offering him a Kremlin job. Mr. Aslakhanov told journalists that "[Putin] asked me whether I wanted to work in the structures of executive power and proposed the post of his assistant responsible for the south of Russia and Chechnya. I consulted my team and gave my consent."
The chain of resignations leaves Kadyrov as front-runner, though the June poll suggested that just 13.1 percent of Chechen voters supported him. Seven lesser candidates still remain in the running, but Sergei Khaikin, research director of the Validata agency dismisses them all as "nonentities." Other experts agree. "There were some serious personalities involved, but now they are gone," says Alexander Iskandaryan, director of the Center for Caucasian Studies, based in Yerevan, Armenia. "Among those left, there is not a single outstanding personality. I don't think that happened by chance."
In early September, armed members of Kadyrov's 2,000-man security force, headed by the acting president's son Ramzan, occupied the offices of Chechnya's only television station and all eight of the republic's newspapers.
"Chechnya is under Kadyrov's full control, and he has demonstrated that he can do whatever he wants," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. "No elections are going to change that fact."
Some experts say Kadyrov may have made himself indispensible to the Kremlin by clamping his personal control on the unruly republic, and now Mr. Putin cannot afford to let him fail.
"Putin has cornered himself, and now he's Kadyrov's hostage," says Mr. Petrov. "Now it's the Kremlin's problem to explain to the international community how this all happened in Chechnya."