Chechnya frontrunners favor independence

GROZNY, Russia (AP) — Barely two years after Russia poured troops into this tiny Muslim republic, Chechens voted triumphantly Monday in elections dominated by the separatist leaders Moscow tried so hard to subdue.
The separatists have been running the southern republic since the war ended in August, and many residents saw the presidential and parliamentary elections as laying the groundwork for full independence from Moscow.
But Russia has vowed to prevent Chechnya from seceding, and the two sides appear headed for renewed confrontation if the Chechens move to cut all ties with Moscow, as they are almost certain to do.
After the disastrous military campaign, Russia has no appetite for more fighting but it will try to put political, economic and diplomatic pressure on Chechnya to keep it in line.
Chechens were in a buoyant mood as they headed to the polls in snow-covered towns and villages.
“This election is about our freedom,” said Hassan Khalidov, a former businessman who served as a rebel fighter in Chechnya’s war against Russia. “The Chechen people have waited hundreds of years for this.”
Turnout was heavy at 450 polling stations across the republic, with lines of people forming well before some stations opened. Polls were kept open an extra two hours to handle the crush before closing late Monday night.
Preliminary results from the presidential race were expected Tuesday. If no one gets 50 percent of the vote, a runoff vote will be held in February, though no date has been set. About 400,000 Chechens were eligible to vote.
Chechnya’s Central Election Commission declared the vote valid when the turnout topped the required 50 percent and stood at 55.7 percent by late evening, the ITAR-Tass news agency said.
At the No. 12 polling station in the bombed-out center of Grozny, the capital, the facade of the three-story building was pocked with bullets and the top two floors were charred by fire.
But the ground floor was packed with voters and election officials, and outside was the Chechen flag, a green banner with a black wolf in the center.
Security was tight as soldiers with automatic rifles guarded the polling stations and told young men with guns to leave their weapons outside. But the atmosphere was relaxed and there were no reports of trouble.
All of the leading Chechen candidates are heroes of the guerrilla war and favor independence for Chechnya despite its small size. Chechnya had only 1.2 million people before the war, and even fewer now.
“People are very tired of war,” Aslan Maskhadov, the front-runner in the presidential race, said after voting Monday. “If people place their trust in me, we will have a chance of a better future.”
Maskhadov, the former rebel chief of staff who negotiated the peace deal with Russia in August, is considered a moderate. But like all top Chechen leaders, he wants to cut ties with Russia.
“We don’t want independence in five or 10 years,” Maskhadov said Sunday. “We think that after democratic elections, civilized elections, we need to sit down to talk with Russia”about independence.
There are 16 candidates on the presidential ballot, but it’s largely seen as a two-man race between Maskhadov and Shamil Basayev, a fiery, 32-year-old guerrilla leader.
The Russians would prefer to deal with Maskhadov, a former artillery officer in the Soviet army. Moscow considers Basayev a terrorist for his 1995 raid on a southern Russian town where his fighters took hundreds of civilians hostage.