RUSSIA: Kremlin Favorite Wins Chechen Presidency
Vladimir Beron «View Bio

August 30, 2004

Chechen Interior Minister Alu Alkhanov won a landslide victory in the August 29 presidential elections, formalizing the Kremlin`s choice for a leader of the war-torn republic. This leaves little hope for a change in the present course that has failed to solve the prolonged separatist conflict ravaging southern Russia for over decade. According to preliminary election results, Alkhanov won nearly 74 percent of the vote, leaving his closest rival, Federal Security Service Colonel Movsur Khamidov, a distant second with approximately six percent of the ballot. Overall, the vote was touted as a success, with a claimed turnout of over 85 percent of Chechnya`s more than half a million eligible voters.

Alkhanov`s overwhelming victory was widely anticipated, as the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin threw its unequivocal support behind the Major General in an effort to secure a Kremlin-friendly replacement for the late Chechen president, Akhmad Kadyrov, assassinated in a May bombing at a stadium in Grozny. The assassination was blamed on militants linked to rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, who has warned that any future president of Chechnya loyal to Moscow would meet the same fate. Hence, it comes as no surprise that Alkhanov has vowed to maintain Moscow`s tough approach to the Chechen conflict, stressing that he will consider talks with Maskhadov only if the latter formally rescinds his support for the armed resistance.

As further evidence of his uncompromising continuation of the current policy, Alkhanov pledged to retain in the new government Sergei Abramov, who was appointed by Kadyrov as Chechen premier in March. He also retained the son of the late president, Ramzan Kadyrov, who is a deputy premier in charge of security, and is known for running a notorious paramilitary force suspected of human rights violations. Both officials are likely to enjoy the Kremlin`s backing, making them mortal enemies of the separatists and compromising their effectiveness in running the republic. Chechnya is in dire need of leaders that can bridge the rift between the rebels and the pro-Moscow camp.

The latest effort by the Russian government to secure some legitimacy for the Chechen government did not escape controversy in international circles. A very limited monitoring mission from the Council of Europe issued a statement after the close of the voting stressing that the elections did not meet international standards for fairness, and noting that a highly disproportioned advantage was given to Alkhanov by the government-controlled media. On the other hand, the Arab League`s ambassador to Moscow, Sayed Mohammed Al Barani, stated that no violations were found, and the ballot was marked by high voter turnout and democracy. However, the large number of voters taking part in the ballot was questionable in light of media reports of a mass exodus from Grozny prior to the elections. Grozny was subjected to deadly rebel attacks targeting police and voting places in the run-up to the poll. The day of the elections was also marred by violence when a man blew himself up after police prevented him from entering a polling place.

It is clear that Alkhanov`s ascendance to the Chechen presidency is unlikely to ease the volatility that continues to undermine stability in the Russian part of the Caucasus and beyond. The Chechen separatist rebellion is believed to be supported by funds and materiel from Islamic fundamentalist organizations based primarily in the Middle East, which seek to promote Wahhabism in the predominantly Muslim areas of Central Asia. Islamic terror groups such as Al Qaeda are also believed to have found a base for their operations in Chechnya. In addition, the porous borders with neighboring Georgia, as well as those of Azerbaijan, have proven a boon for militants moving in and out of Chechnya. Given these circumstances, the Chechen leadership is unlikely to succeed in gaining control of the security situation, or to prevent the conflict from spilling into other parts of Russia. Adjacent areas, such as Dagestan and Ingushetia, have borne the brunt of terrorist attacks blamed on Chechen rebels, but Russia proper has not been spared either.

Despite President Putin`s persistent claims of having the Chechen separatist rebellion under control, and a seemingly constant state of heightened security, militants have managed to penetrate even the most central parts of the Russian capital and stage terrorist attacks close to the Kremlin. And two Chechen women are the prime suspects in the blowing up of two Russian airliners on August 24, both of which took off from Moscow en route to southern Russia. The attacks on civilian airplanes are an ominous sign that the militants are ever more brazen in their efforts to force the federal authorities out of Chechnya. The new regime in Grozny under Alkhanov is unlikely to turn Russian government fortunes around in Chechnya for the foreseeable future.

Vladimir Beron is Senior Risk Analyst with the international risk management group Sentigence