AFTER the successful 21-month-long war to drive out Russian federal troops, Chechnya has taken another firm step towards full independence by electing the separatist-minded rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov as its new president. The landmark presidential and parliamentary elections saw such a high turnout that polling stations were ordered to stay open an extra two hours.
The polls were seen as the key to bringing stability to the tiny war-torn Muslim republic in North Caucasus, and were monitored by 72 observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). "Every one of us was told to bring a sleeping bag, long underwear and a tot of whisky," Ingvald Godal, a Norwegian parliamentarian, told reporters on arrival in Chechnya, his fur hat clamped over a yellow OSCE baseball cap.
The observers found no major violations as the elections surprisingly passed off without incident, despite widespread fears of violence. Russian helicopters were on hand at an army base in Mozdok, just outside Chechnya, to evacuate anyone if necessary. The Chechen authorities had given them permission to land anywhere in Chechnya in case of emergency. But this was not needed as Grozny and other cities stayed unusually calm. "Dont enter with weapons," read a note posted at one polling station ,underlining the new image being emphasised in the rehabilitation process.
The initial response from Moscow was cautiously positive. The ailing Russian President Boris Yeltsin was briefly shown on Russian TV for the first time after his bout with double pneumonia. He expressed the hope that Maskhadovs election would lead to "constructive continuation" of talks on defining the future status of Chechnya within the Russian Federation.
Moscow still claims sovereignty over Chechnya, but all the main contestants in the poll, including acting president Zemilkhan Yandarbiyev and commander Shamil Basayev, unanimously rejected Moscows view.
After his victory, Maskhadov, 45, a former colonel of the Soviet army, told the press: "Chechnya is a sovereign nation. Our task now is to make other nations recognise our independence." Maskhadov, who is considered moderate, stated that Moscow was responsible for the damages in Chechnya and would have to make provision for rehabilitation work. "We are ready to apeal to the international court if necessary", Maskhadov told Russian TV on the eve of the ballot.
However, Russia has threatened to break diplomatic ties with nations that recognise Chechnya. "All claims of independence is idle talk while we have the standing political agreement with Chechnya," says Russias Security Council Chief Ivan Rybkin.
The August 31, 1996, peace agreement between Russia and Chechnya postpones the decision on the political status of Chechnya for the next five years. But few experts believe that Chechens will stand by it. "In five years Russia may have healed the wounds of the Chechen defeat and recovered economically, politically and militarily. This makes Chechens want to hurry up with their independence now," Sergei Solodovnik, leading research fellow with the Institute of International Relations, told Outlook .
Experts in Moscow feel that some of the observer countries are eager to see Chechnya fully secede from Russia. They cite the fact that the OSCE had not noticed that many voters had been forced to miss the polls when some 400,000 refugees, including thousands of ethnic Russians, were not able to vote as polling stations had been set up only within Chechnya.
In the aftermath of the withdrawal of the federal troops f rom Chechnya early this January, the single force that stands aligned with the 40,000-strong Russian minority is the Cossack movement.
The Cossacks and Chechens have been enemies ever since armed Cossacks rode into the northern Caucasus in the 19th century as a part of the Tsars drive to build a continental empire for Russia.
Despite Maskhadovs assurances that ethnic Russians in Chechnya would be treated on the same footing as the Chechens, tension is mounting in the republic. Viktor Zaitsev, a member of the Terek Cossacks in Russias southern Stavropol region, told a Russian nationalist gathering in Moscow that his people consider the northern part of Chechnya as their own and are prepared to die for it. "We will never agree to the loss of the left bank of the Terek river (northern Chechnya)," Zaitsev said. "We will fight for it just like the Chechens have fought for land they regard as their own, with mothers and children holding hunting rifles". Maskhadov, however, believes that Chechnya will not be split after the elections. "Despite the fact that a lot of a rms remain in the hands of the Chechens, Chechnya will never endure the so-called Afghan variant," he said.
Russian Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov says he does not stand by the idea of arming the Cossacks. However, he added, should Russians in the region come under attack, Russia would then reserve the right to intervene militarily.