One candidate is a 32-year-old rebel commander who once held 1,200 Russian civilians hostage. Another is a military strategist who led outgunned and outmanned guerrillas to a rout of the Russian military. A third is a fiery poet of independence whose works are banned in Russia.
Those three men are among 16 candidates running in today’s election for president of Chechnya, a tiny, mountainous republic in the Russian Federation. Each anathema to Russia. The feeling is reciprocal.
If this devastated land remains a part of Russia, it is in name only. Authorities in Moscow may insist that they rule Chechnya, but Chechens say Muscovites are no more credible than an amputee who still imagines the presence of a missing limb.
Russia’s disastrous attempt to suppress Chechen separatism by force, starting in late 1994, reduced the republic to rubble, displaced one-third of the population and killed tens of thousands of civilians. Chechen fighters hounded the Russians out of the capital, Grozny, in August and a peace deal providing for a Russian troop withdrawal was signed a month later.
The agreement includes a face-saving clause for Russia. In 2001, Chechens will be permitted to vote to secede. Until then, the little republic in the Caucasus Mountains can negotiate a degree of autonomy with the federal government while remaining subject to the federal constitution.
Shamil Basayev, the beloved young field commander who is considered Russia’s most-wanted man because of his bloody hostage-taking raid on the southern city of Budyonnovsk in mid-1995, said his first act as president would be to confirm Chechnya’s claim of independence before an international court.
Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, the Chechen president who is seeking re-election, is a poet whose work is banned in Russia. His financial advisers are working on plans to cut Russia out of the lucrative pipeline that will transport Caspian Sea oil to Western Europe. Moscow wants the main transit pipe to run through Chechnya to one of Russia’s ports.
Hard-line talk from Basayev and Yandarbiyev worries some Chechens. To them, the third leading candidate, Aslan Maskhadov, overall commander of the Chechen resistance to Russia and negotiator of the peace agreement, is a moderate.
Maskhadov is vague about how he would balance Chechen pressure for independence with Russian demands for a continued role in Chechen affairs. But he has not ruled out a special kind of status for Chechnya within Russia, showing a flexibility that has left him open to gibes from opponents that he will be too soft.