- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 5, 2003

GROZNY, Russia — Chechens voted for a president yesterday in an election condemned by critics as a sham but promoted by the Kremlin as a step toward ending a decade of violence and chaos.

Regional election chief Abdul-Kerim Arsakhanov told the Itar-Tass news agency early today that, as expected, the Kremlin-backed candidate, Chechnya administration chief Akhmad Kadyrov, appeared headed for victory.

With nearly a quarter of the votes counted in preliminary and unofficial tallies, Mr. Kadyrov had more than 83 percent, the election official said. Most of the winner’s main rivals had already withdrawn from the race.

No official figures were expected until later in the day, but Mr. Arsakhanov said the results were unlikely to change by more than three percentage points, Itar Tass reported.

In the capital, where ruined hulks of buildings rise like broken teeth, and in impoverished villages, many Chechens turned out in suits and fine dresses to vote. But others disdained the proceedings as a farce.

“In my view all of Russia is far from democracy, and not just Chechnya,” said Liza Vishayeva as she passed a polling station. She said she hadn’t voted and doubted the election would bring significant improvement.

“To change this to a peaceful situation would be very tough,” she said.

Chechnya’s latest war began in September 1999 with a massive air and ground assault but has devolved into a bloody stalemate. The Russians pound Chechen rebels with heavy weaponry and insurgents stage daily ambushes with explosives and hit-and-run attacks.

Even Mr. Kadyrov said the region’s suffering would be hard to turn around.

“I would like to say that tomorrow the sun will rise from the place where it sets,” Mr. Kadyrov told reporters at a news conference in the tree-lined courtyard of his house in the village of Tsentoroi. “But what will be different tomorrow is that I will be legally elected.”

Russian officials and lawmakers have discussed substantial autonomy for Chechnya, but no terms have been reached. Still, the Kremlin hopes the election will be seen as a sign of civil order returning to the region.

More than 81 percent of Chechnya’s 561,000 eligible voters cast ballots, officials said. Some 30,000 Russian servicemen permanently stationed in Chechnya had the right to vote.

Human rights advocates questioned the fairness of a vote held during a war and condemned the election as a political farce heavily tilted in favor of Mr. Kadyrov.

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