The final element in a three-step Kremlin plan to "normalize" breakaway Chechnya falls into place Sunday as the tiny republic's voters elect their first parliament since the current war began in 1999.
Moscow authorities hope the campaign, which has seen 353 candidates from eight political parties competing in a relatively free atmosphere, will convince a skeptical world that Chechnya has returned to Russia's constitutional fold after two bitter wars of secession in 11 years.
"Official Moscow needs these elections to strip separatists of their last shreds of legitimacy in the eyes of the West," says Timur Aliyev, editor of Chechen Society, an independent newspaper in the Chechen capital of Grozny. "This parliament will fill the missing link in our authorities' system."
In a grim reminder that all is not quite normal in Chechnya, several dozen human rights activists demonstrated in Grozny last week to demand that Russian forces limit their use of armored vehicles and dismantle hundreds of checkpoints that still impede daily life.
The protest was triggered by a recent drunken rampage by Russian troops in Staraya Sunzha, near Grozny, in which three civilians were shot dead. "Servicemen in Chechnya drink to excess and behave badly," Chechen human rights commissioner Nurdi Nukhazhiyev told the independent Mosnews press agency. "If they decide to kill civilians, they just go ahead and do it."
The new bicameral legislature will complete the Kremlin-designed system of local government, which includes a republic constitution, and an elected president and parliament, cemented under Moscow's rule. A constitutional referendum and two presidential elections - the first leader was assassinated by rebels - in the past two years drew charges of official manipulation and voter coercion from human rights monitors.
"If this election is the last stage of the political process, then it is the last stage of a fiction," says Tatiana Lokshina, who heads Demos Center, a human rights group. She says real power in Chechnya rests with Ramzan Kadyrov, the son of assassinated former President Akhmad Kadyrov, who runs the republic's paramilitary security force. "Regardless of any elections, everything will continue to be run by the Kadyrov clan," she says.
Russian officials insist the conflict is winding down, and that the few remaining separatist guerrillas are increasingly isolated from a war-weary population. Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin recently said Russian military deaths in Chechnya have fallen from 1,397 in 2000, to 485 in 2002, to 161 last year. The number of rebel attacks against Russian forces so far this year is just 28, compared to 130 in 2004, he added.
Sergei Khaikin, director of the Moscow-based Institute of Social Marketing, which conducts opinion surveys in Chechnya, says Chechens are exhausted by the turmoil, and that most appear ready to embrace Moscow rule in return for peace. "According to our surveys 86 percent of Chechens accept the idea of remaining within Russia, compared with 67 percent three years ago," he says.
But he adds that just 48 percent believe the current elections are likely to be free and fair. "People are worried about the way votes will be counted, and possible falsifications," Mr. Khaikin says.
Opinion polls put the pro-Kremlin United Russia party in the lead, with 47 percent support, followed by the Communist party with 17 percent. The liberal Yabloko party, which opposes Moscow's policies in Chechnya, is a distant third.
Instability has spread from Chechnya to several of the surrounding mainly Muslim republics of Russia's volatile northern Caucasus region. Islamist rebels in neighboring Dagestan have launched almost 100 attacks this year, while some experts describe the situation in Ingushetia, a kindred ethnic republic to Chechnya's west, as near disastrous. In October, Chechen-linked Islamists staged a raid against Nalchik, capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, which killed more than 100.
"What we see across the north Caucasus are the consequences of many years of neglect, and many mistakes, by the Russian government," says Sergei Kolmakov, codirector of PBN, a Moscow-based business risk consultancy. "Moscow finds itself in a corner. Most of the people in this region see themselves as inseparable from Russia, but they urgently want change."
Russian authorities usually identify the sources of unrest as mass unemployment, underdevelopment, and post-Soviet social inequity, which drives young men into the arms of Islamist extremists. But they have also begun admitting they face an "ideological" problem as well.
"The Nalchik events showed that many of the attackers were young men with higher educations and good jobs, not from poor families at all," says Sergei Mironov, Speaker of the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament. "Unfortunately, many of them have fallen under the spell of extreme Islam, with its antihuman views, and are pursuing these alien goals."
The candidates include three former rebels who've accepted Moscow's amnesty, including Magomed Khambiyev, defense minister under the late rebel president Aslan Maskhadov. But no one who currently opposes Chechnya's republic status was allowed to run. "The parliament won't be fully representative because there will be no force that openly supports Chechen sovereignty within Russia or independence from Russia," says Mr. Aliyev.
"But, it will be better for everyone if the separatists accept open and legal methods instead of taking to the hills. It is necessary to move from the military stage to a political process if this conflict is ever to be resolved," he says.