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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 November 2007, 10:42 GMT
Chechens prepare for key election
By Richard Galpin
BBC News, Grozny

Campaigning for next month's parliamentary election in Russia is under way and already the leader of one of the most sensitive regions in the country, Chechnya, has predicted that 100% of the electorate in his republic will vote for President Vladimir Putin's party, United Russia.

Ramzan Kadyrov at a news conference
Mr Kadyrov came to power after the death of his father, Akhmad
The Chechen President, Ramzan Kadyrov, who was personally appointed by Mr Putin earlier this year, was speaking to the BBC and a group of other foreign journalists in the Chechen capital, Grozny.

It was an unusual news conference.

We met him on a square in the centre of the capital after he swaggered through the streets dressed in a black leather jacket and protected by a minimal number of security guards.

He wanted to prove to us just how much he is in control of his new fiefdom, which has been racked by conflict with Russia for more than a decade since first trying to become an independent state.

'Positive changes'

Mr Kadyrov, a 31-year-old former separatist rebel turned Kremlin loyalist, has a fearsome reputation.

I won't do anything - in the last presidential election [in 2004], 94% of our people voted for Mr Putin
Ramzan Kadyrov
President, Republic of Chechnya

His militia stands accused of committing gross human rights violations including kidnapping and systematic torture.

But he insists the election in Chechnya on 2 December for the Russian national parliament will not be rigged to ensure a thumping majority for the United Russia party.

"I won't do anything," he told us. "In the last presidential election [in 2004], 94% of our people voted for Mr Putin."

"He's stopped the war and restored the republic - hospitals, schools, roads, everything. All positive changes are thanks to President Putin."


Such flattery will be music to the ears of the Russian leader, whose decision to launch the second invasion of Chechnya in 1999 was popular among the national electorate.

Chechens wave Russian and Chechen flags with the head of Ramzan Kadyrov on them
Support for Mr Kadyrov and Russia is widely encouraged in Chechnya
It ensured him victory in the presidential election a few months later.

Now, in the run-up to an election for the national parliament in which he is standing as the main candidate for United Russia, he can boast not only of a pacified Chechnya, but one which is expected to vote overwhelmingly for his newly adopted party.

It may sound too good to be true for a politician who prosecuted a war which left tens of thousands dead and Chechnya in ruins, but on the streets of Grozny there are few who doubt it will happen.

The question is by what means.

Prying eyes

Our visit to Chechnya was strictly controlled by Russian government officials and heavily-armed troops.

It felt as if we were embedded with an army in a war zone, except of course, the war is supposed to be over in Chechnya.

We've been told that the worthwhile party is United Russia - we're not being offered anything else
Kheda Saratova
Independent journalist

When we did manage to escape the clutches of our omnipresent minders, we knew our time for frank discussions with local people would be limited.

One such brief encounter was with an independent journalist, Kheda Saratova, in the midst of a particularly tedious tour of a television station organised by our Russian and Chechen minders.

It was dark and we met on the perimeter of the car park as far as possible from prying eyes.

I wanted to know one thing. If Ramzan Kadyrov had already decreed that an overwhelming majority of Chechens would vote for President Putin's party, United Russia, would that mean the electorate would be afraid to vote for any other party?

Soldiers marching through Grozny
Russia has more than 30,000 troops still stationed in Chechnya
"Of course," she said. "Today I'm afraid to say all that I think."

"We've been told that the worthwhile party is United Russia. We're not being offered anything else. We can't offer anything ourselves. We don't have any other choice."

She went on to describe how it was dangerous to be critical of Mr Kadyrov.

As she spoke, she suddenly switched into stream of glowing praise for the government. She had spotted two policemen approaching us.


But the election in Chechnya is not just about intimidation.

All those who visit Grozny nowadays who knew it when it lay in ruins just a few years ago, are shocked by the transformation.

A market in Grozny at night
Mr Kadyrov has been praised for rebuilding war-ravaged Grozny
The pace of reconstruction is rapid. Modern apartment blocks and new offices have sprung up in the city centre to replace the ruins.

Markets are open and busy in the evenings. People throng the streets. It could almost be a normal city.

And for that, many people are grateful to both Mr Kadyrov and his backers in Moscow.

"Every peaceful day is the most important thing and it was Ramzan and his father who brought us peace," said shop-keeper Tanya Habiliyava.

After years of waiting she has now moved back into her home in Grozny. It was finally rebuilt. And her family have jobs and pensions.

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