Russia: War-ravaged Chechnya chooses a parliament as Kremlin pushes for stability

Chechens voted Sunday in the violence-wracked Caucasus region's first parliamentary elections since Russian troops reinvaded some six years ago, with the Kremlin looking to normalize the region. Few international observers, however, were monitoring the election for the flaws that have marred three previous votes. Analysts fear that the new parliament will be nothing more than a rubber-stamp body for the republic's Kremlin-backed governing elites.

Security appeared to be tight, with police and heavily armed soldiers at most crossroads in western Chechnya and in the capital Grozny and some 24,000 federal and regional troops and police guarding 430 polling stations throughout the region.

In some districts, many of those who cast ballots said they hoped the new parliament would cement stability for a region plagued by widespread unemployment, a shattered infrastructure and persistent low-level violence. More than 350 candidates campaigned for 58 seats in the two-chamber parliament, with most of Russia's main national political parties fielding contenders.

Electoral authorities announced a turnout of more than 60 percent, the RIA-Novosti news agency reported, but the pro-independence KavkazCenter Web site claimed turnout was dramatically lower, putting it at 5 to 7 percent and denouncing the elections as "the latest farce." The Web site did not indicate how it arrived at the figure.

In Grozny, a city of more than 1 million that was nearly razed in early 1990s amid fighting between separatist rebels and Russian forces, rows of blasted-out, uninhabitable apartment blocks still stand amid piles of scrap and rubble. A small handful of a new, multistory buildings boast bright paint, modern exteriors and neat landscaping.

Moscow hopes that the fourth popular vote since March 2003 will serve as a further catalyst for stability. The Kremlin says the three previous polls _ two presidential, one referendum _ show a return to normalcy, along with a recent rock concert, the construction of a new water amusement park, the success of Grozny's professional soccer team and a boxing tournament opened by Mike Tyson in September.

Also fueling intense loathing among many civilians are the rampant abductions staged by gangs, Russian troops and paramilitaries. Many blame a security force controlled by the man likely to be Chechnya's next president _ 29-year-old Ramzan Kadyrov. Nearly 1,700 people have been kidnapped in recent years and are still missing, government officials say. Some Chechens doubted the vote could lead to any improvements in their lives, the AP reports.


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