Russia's Chechen Plan: Pick a Leader and Leave

 

Does a lot of this sound familiar?  Have Tamils had fake elections and efforts by the government to foist a leadership on us?  Can anyone see Devananda in a karakul hat?  How about the sad soldiers left to patrol a city they have destroyed with heavy artillery - all in the name of unity and brotherhood? -Ed.

By SETH MYDANS

GROZNY, Russia, Sept. 11 It was a surprise the other day in this raw and bleeding city to come across a rock band on the back of a flatbed truck, its loud music echoing through acres of empty, shattered buildings.

A cluster of unsmiling men listened patiently in the central plaza. Dozens of soldiers with automatic rifles stood on alert around them.

The rock concert was a campaign rally in support of the Kremlin's handpicked candidate, Akhmad Kadyrov, as the shattered republic of Chechnya goes through the motions of a presidential election.

Ten candidates were in the race until this week, when the two most dangerous challengers to the incumbent, Mr. Kadyrov, were forced by the government to withdraw.

There does not seem to be much question here about who is going to win. "Kadyrov is our president," say the terse slogans scrawled on the walls of ruins. Big green-and-red placards show him in a karakul hat, looking suspicious as he peers through narrowed eyes.

The election, in the view of many analysts, has been stage-managed by Moscow, as part of an exit strategy from an unending, unwinnable, horribly destructive war. After four years of slaughter, the Russians are trying, but only on paper, to do what people once urged the United States to do in Vietnam: declare victory and leave.

The Kremlin's exit strategy is part of a very real election, but it is not the race for the presidency of Chechnya. It is the Russian parliamentary elections in December, and the presidential vote next March.

"The upcoming election in Chechnya is under way with the sole purpose of being able to say before the federal parliamentary election, `The situation in Chechnya is finally getting settled here comes the election. Therefore, vote for us, the ruling party,' " wrote Sergei Kovalyov, a leading human rights advocate.

To do this, the Kremlin is constructing a Potemkin success rock bands, elections and all without bothering to put a false front over the facades of Grozny's ruined cityscape. Like living dead, the empty buildings march for miles across the city, their windows gaping, their guts exposed, monuments to Russian firepower.

With next month's elections and a new Constitution, Chechnya officially becomes its own master with the permanent assistance of tens of thousands of Russian soldiers.

Already President Vladimir V. Putin has announced an end to the war, and the separatist rebels have been transformed in Kremlin parlance into bandits and common criminals, a problem for the police.

"There is no war there at all," the president told a French television station in February, only a battle against terrorists.

Two months ago he reported progress. "We have practically brought to an end the so-called counterterrorist operation," he said, "and are handing over to the Interior Ministry responsibility for maintaining public order."

Mr. Putin launched Chechnya's second war in a decade in 1999 as part of his presidential campaign when he was prime minister under former President Boris N. Yeltsin. His toughness and aggressiveness in the face of a wave of terrorism helped win him the presidency.

Since then, more than 6,000 Russian soldiers have died, according to estimates by nongovernmental groups. Terrorism and suicide bombings have surged here and in Moscow. The country is fed up with Chechnya and Mr. Putin urgently needs to be rid of it.

"The best that Russians want from Chechnya is not to disturb their peace," said Boris Makarenko, an analyst at the Center for Political Technologies, a policy institute.

There are 40,000 troops in the republic, about half the peak deployment in 1999, said Col. Ilya Shabalkin, the military spokesman here. He said that number was to be drawn down to a standing 25,000.

Colonel Shabalkin asserted to reporters brought here on a Kremlin-organized tour that full-scale military operations had ended in June. The focus now, he said, is on about 3,000 fighters he called bandits, dispersed into small groups that carry out bombings, suicide attacks, auto theft and theft from oil pipelines.

Mr. Kadyrov himself is a potential threat. A former Islamic leader, he was chosen three years ago by Moscow to run Chechnya.

He commands a private army of his own that frightened residents who demand anonymity say has become a new source of terror, carrying out killings, kidnappings and torture. It could become a dangerous third force if the Russians fail to assure his victory.

For those who live here, Grozny is a city of violence, fear and despair. Only about half of its original population of 400,000 remains. Officials say 70 to 80 percent have no work.

Even as the rock band was stomping through its numbers the other day, the more familiar sound of gunfire could be heard not far away as edgy soldiers at a roadblock challenged a truck that had lost its way.

"People are nervous, aggressive," said Zainul-Sherifa Saltamuradova, 54, a refugee who recently moved into new housing under a government resettlement program.

"Most of us are depressed," she said. "Life is poisoned by the past. Everyone here is an invalid, in body and soul."

Before the first 1994-96 war in Chechnya, the husband of Avgustina Vakhayeva, a 57-year-old cook, had a good job at a cement plant. "All these buildings, he built," she said. "Now he just sits there like a mute."

People concede that life is, as Mr. Putin says, a little better in Grozny. There are no longer battles in the streets. Some rebuilding is under way. Refugees are being returned, sometimes under pressure, from their camps outside the republic.

Some electricity has been restored and a small fleet of buses is on the roads. The government promises running water soon.

But Russian troops still stay off the dangerous and unlit streets at night. By day they crouch behind concrete bunkers with signs that say, "Do not come closer than 10 meters" and, "I shoot without warning."

Every morning, sappers patrol for newly planted mines in what the International Campaign to Ban Landmines calls the most heavily mined place in the world. In a report this month, it said explosives laid by both sides killed 5,695 people last year in Chechnya, compared with 1,286 in Afghanistan. Terror attacks, kidnappings and arbitrary arrests continue.

One jobless young man, Adam Musayev, 23, said he feared being seized by Russian soldiers whenever he left his house. "Every time you go out, you don't know if you'll come home again," he said.

A tangle of clan rivalries, ethnic hatred and blood debts promise many more years of conflict.

"As long as there is one Chechen left on this earth the war will continue," said Raissa Ganiyeva, 19, five of whose brothers and two of whose sisters left home to join the rebels.

Alahudin Altamirov, a 56-year-old military pensioner, said people no longer dared to hope for peace.

"Every day we waited for things to get better," he said. "We kept thinking, tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow, you know. People are tired, very tired."

It has been an exhausting and joyless victory for the Russian troops as well. With aircraft, artillery and tank fire, they destroyed the city of Grozny, and now it is theirs.

Here and there, on the roof of a battered, empty building, it is possible to glimpse a military bunker where soldiers keep watch, a faded Russian tricolor fluttering above it.