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Potemkin Elections

Voters in Russia's violence-racked Republic of Chechnya will go to the polls Sunday. But they won't be voting in a free and fair election - they'll be rubber-stamping Russian President Vladimir Putin's hand-picked candidate for president. That's hardly a recipe for peace.

Muslim Chechnya is the rebellious region that has fought two civil wars with Russian troops in the last decade. As prime minister, Mr. Putin launched the second in 1999. That war has killed tens of thousands of Chechens and Russians. Hundreds of thousands of Chechens have fled their homeland. Rebels continue to kill several Russian soldiers a day.

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International human rights organizations and several European governments have accused the Russians of gross human rights violations. The Chechen rebels are guilty of their own serious violations, and their cause - independence, not an Islamic state - is tainted by the presence among them of a few Islamist terrorists, including members of Al Qaeda.

Sunday's election is supposed to consolidate the so-called peace - replacing an appointed administrator with an elected president and Russian troops with Chechen militia. But the Kremlin has used job offers, threats, and violence to drive all serious opponents of its favored candidate, Akhmad Kadyrov, out of the race.

Mr. Kadyrov is not merely the only viable candidate left. He's also the current Moscow-appointed administrator and head of his own brutal militia - for which he is profoundly disliked. A recent independent poll showed 61 percent of Chechens don't want him as president. But he's sure to win the most votes, setting the stage for what many worry will be continued conflict.

Russian voters - who will soon themselves be voting in parliamentary elections - know little of what goes on in Chechnya these days. The Kremlin has managed to silence most of the critical media voices in the country. Just two days ago a Moscow theater canceled plans to host a film festival on the Chechen war, claiming that many of the films are "anti-Russian," and that showing them would hurt its relationship with the government.

Moscow may cry "peace," but there is no peace in Chechnya. Until the Kremlin realizes military force alone won't settle the issue, and starts talks with a broad spectrum of Chechen representatives, peace will continue to seem a long way off.


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