In a moment meant to signal the start of "democracy" in Chechnya, the cameras whirred yesterday as Kremlin favorite Akhmad Kadyrov cast his vote to be Chechnya's elected president.
It's a rite of passage in any Western democracy. But in Chechnya, wracked by two wars in a decade, and bloodied by atrocities committed by Russia and rebel forces, most analysts say it is no more than a shadow of the real thing
"Russia will consider that Chechnya has a legitimate authority, though the Chechen population might have a different opinion," says Alexander Iskandaryan, head of the Center for Caucasian Studies in Yerevan, Armenia. "Everybody calls [the election] a farce."
Mr. Kadyrov is central to Moscow's plan to bring at least the appearance of legitimate government, and to ensure that the ongoing war does not damage Russian President Vladimir Putin's own reelection bid next March.
"I won't say that the sun tomorrow will change its course," Mr. Kadyrov said. "What will change if I am elected? First and most important, I will be the legally elected head of the republic," and will not be Putin's "puppet."
Victory here - or at least a stamp of legitimacy on the status quo - is critical in a conflict that Mr. Putin equates with Washington's war on terror. For the first time last week, President George Bush agreed that Russia is facing its own terrorism in Chechnya.
That nod of approval came despite a squall of protests about human rights abuses by federal and Kadyrov forces in Chechnya - some of it coming from US State Department officials testifying to Congress just two weeks ago. To the consternation of Washington, Putin included Kadyrov in his official delegation to the US.
But Kremlin handling of the vote has surprised some who figured months ago that Kadyrov was likely to win even without Moscow meddling. Yesterday on a government-organized trip, only a handful of non-Kadyrov campaign posters could be seen, among a sea promoting Moscow's choice.
"It is a mistake, and proves the Kremlin was afraid" Kadyrov might lose, says Alexei Malashenko, of the Carnegie Endowment's office in Moscow. "Putin could say 'look, there's competition, there's democracy.' But [the Kremlin] preferred to get their own president in Chechnya without any competition."
"Kadyrov had to win, because he's working on his own territory," adds Mr. Malashenko. "In Chechnya, a big piece of this society associates electricity, new schools, and compensation with the name of Kadyrov."
But Kadyrov also runs a 2,000-strong security force that is accused of abuses. "Kadyrov creates problems," says Magomed Rasoul Mougougmayev, a mufti in the neighboring republic of Dagestan. "If Kadyrov is elected he will not solve the problem, he will make it worse."
Russian forces, too, remain an issue, though they are believed to have lightened their heavy hand. "Elections will not change the fact that military actions will still go on," says Mariam Yandieva, chairwoman of the Memorial Society in Ingushetia, another Caucasian republic. "We fear" after the election that "counter-terrorism operations might be expanded into Ingushetia's territory."
While security may have improved in Chechnya, despite a series of resistance suicide attacks this summer that killed some 300, yesterday's press journey required a convoy of official cars, an armored personnel carrier bristling with Russian troops, and other armed forces.
Russian troops are here in force, holed up in bleak bunkers marked by faded Russian flags and razor wire.
Chechens who would talk at the polls praised Kadyrov and said they wanted his rule to continue. Several said they wanted the "best man," and he was it.
But not all were convinced. "Even if someone is under pressure, they will find a way to express their opinion, or they may choose not [to vote]. Nothing can scare us," said Liza Vishaeva, a refugee for three years, who said she wasn't voting at her local polling booth on the outskirts of the Chechen capital, Grozny. "There is no democracy even in Russia, to say nothing of Chechnya."
Outside the republic, Chechens were equally skeptical. "What kind of peace can there be in Chechnya, if at midnight masked men can come into your house and take sons and daughters, and there is nothing left of them?" asks Zainab, an ethnic Chechen who now lives in Dagestan. "It will never be over, never."
Because of his close connection to Moscow, Kadyrov, a former deputy mufti and rebel who opposed Moscow in the first Chechen war, is often derided by Chechen separatists as "Metropolitan Kadyrov," a reference to a ranking member of the Russian Orthodox Church.
But he has also earned some respect for staying in Chechnya and surviving more than 30 attempts on his life, according to his chief of security. Many others left, including some key candidates who sought to run for the top spot from Moscow before they left the race.
"Kadyrov ... can be killed at any moment, isn't that courageous?" says Kaitmaz Abdulkhalikov, a Dagestani. "He lives in Chechnya, which means he is doomed. He risks every moment."
The worst elements of the war have eased in the past year, with fewer kidnappings, disappearances, and arrests.
Still, "Putin is concerned that Kadyrov's position in Chechnya is rather weak," Malashenko says. if Putin is reelected next March - a likelihood, with a recent poll showing that Putin is the most popular leader since the Russian Revolution - "then he will demand from Kadyrov an explanation of his weakness. If [rebels] don't murder him first."
Putin needs to show that he can bring stability to a conflict that helped propel him to the presidency, but has since been a drag. "[Most] of Russian society sees no difference between Kadyrov, Aslanbek, or the prophet Muhammad," says Malashenko. "At least Putin can say, 'They elected their president.' Because nobody in Russia is interested in democracy, everyone will be satisfied."