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Last Updated: Saturday, 11 October, 2003, 12:33 GMT 13:33 UK
Chechnya's 'free and fair' poll

By Steve Rosenberg
BBC correspondent in Chechnya

Last Sunday's presidential election in Chechnya was won by pro-Moscow leader Akhmad Kadyrov. The vote is part of Moscow's plans to stabilise the troubled republic, but human rights groups dismissed it as a farce and international bodies raised questions over its legitimacy.

Steve Rosenberg was taken to Chechnya by the Russian authorities to see the election for himself.

When the bus drew up outside our hotel, it was clear this was going to be no ordinary guided tour.

Russian soldiers guard polling station in Chechnya
Guns were everywhere on election day
For a start, the bus was accompanied by an armoured personnel carrier and a unit of elite Russian troops.

They sat on top of the APC looking menacing, with their black balaclavas and Kalashnikovs.

We jumped on the bus.

Our tour guide was a man from the Kremlin. Before the excursion began, he gave the group of journalists one useful tip.

"Whatever we tell you to do," he said, "You do it. And don't put a step out of line!"

And with that, the bus moved off. Destination - Chechnya.

The elections we were about to witness were - according to Moscow - free and fair.


But foreign journalists are not free to move around Chechnya.

At least Kadyrov's someone we know... we haven't got a clue about any of the rest
Voter in Chechnya

Being part of an official Kremlin excursion is the only way to get in and get around, although we were well aware that we would probably only get to see what our minders, and the Russian military, wanted us to.

Half an hour later, we passed the last checkpoint in the neighbouring Russian republic of Ingushetia and crossed into Chechnya.

From then on the journey became rather nerve-wracking.

The road we were travelling on had come under regular attack so a military jeep drove out in front, jamming the frequencies used in radio-controlled mines.

At last we made it safely to the first stop - a polling station in the village of Sernovodsk.

It did not look like any polling station I had ever seen - more like an army camp.

Dominant face

There were guns everywhere. Russian troops and pro-Moscow Chechen police filled the courtyard, guarding from attacks by Chechen rebels.

Empty polling station in Chechnya
In many places polling stations were empty
Inside the building a small group of elderly Chechen men and women were voting.

There were seven candidates to choose from. Everyone we spoke to said they supported the Kremlin's choice, Akhmad Kadyrov, the man Moscow appointed three years ago to run the republic.

"At least Kadyrov's someone we know," one voter told me. "We haven't got a clue about any of the rest."

There was - it turned out - a good reason for that.

And it became increasingly clear as we drove on through Chechnya.

Wherever we went, there was one face which stared down at us from walls and lamp-posts, advertising hoardings and apartment blocks: Akhmad Kadyrov.

Some of his campaign posters showed him shaking hands with Vladimir Putin - more evidence that he had received the Kremlin's backing.

Troops, not voters

There were no pictures, though, of Mr Kadyrov's three main rivals - they had all withdrawn or been removed from the ballot well in advance - making victory for the gruff, tough-talking Mr Kadyrov almost certain.

This conflict's going to last a long, long time... one election's not going to change that
Russian soldier
At the next polling station in the town of Achkhoi Martan, there seemed to be more troops hanging around than voters.

In fact, I could not see anyone taking part in the ballot at all.

Still, that did not stop the local election chief boasting that the turnout was high.

"But where is everybody?" I asked, slightly puzzled.

He did not know, he said, a little embarrassed, and scurried away.

Unconvinced, we drove on through more towns and villages which had been reduced to ruins by nearly a decade of violence.

Election, or show?

In some places it seemed as if there was not a single building which had not been damaged by bullets or bombs.

Akhmad Kadyrov
In the end Kadyrov got more than 80% of the vote
By now the election was beginning to look more and more like a show.

At one polling station we were greeted by a group of exhaustingly energetic folk dancers who, with smiles as broad as Chechnya's River Terek, leapt around the yard, stamping their feet in time with accordions and drums.

But, inside - once again - there was a distinct lack of voter activity.

By evening we had reached the Russian army base in the Chechen capital, Grozny.

During our two-day stay there we were not allowed to leave - except to hear the election results announced at a press conference the next day.

There was not much suspense - everyone knew who was going to win, but by how much?

Unresolved conflict

In the end Akhmad Kadyrov, it turned out, had won more than 80% of the vote.

It had been a truly democratic election - well, at least that is what the string of officials said up on the podium.

Maybe they just had not heard the widespread accounts of vote rigging, intimidation and ballot stuffing.

Our tour over, it was time to go home.

As the bus made its way slowly out of Chechnya, I turned to one of the Russian special troops sitting opposite.

"So, what do you think?" I asked. "Will there be peace now in Chechnya?"

He smiled. And then he shook his head.

"This conflict's going to last a long, long time," he told me.

"One election's not going to change that."

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03 Oct 03  |  Europe
Profile: Chechnya
30 Sep 03  |  Country profiles

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