European papers gave extensive play to this Sunday's controversial presidential election in the troubled Russian republic of Chechnya. The election has been almost universally derided as a one-sided sham, largely because Russia's chosen candidate for the job, Akhmad Kadyrov, has forced all serious competitors to drop out of the race with a combination of money and brute force. The race is particularly ridiculous because Chechnya's incumbent president is leading rebel forces in their battle against the Russians.
France's Le Monde led Friday with an exclusive interview with Aslan Maskhadov, the elusive rebel leader who has been in hiding for four years. Elected Chechnya's president in 1997, he is now a prime target of Russian military efforts in the region, accused by them of having links to international terrorists. In his interview, Maskhadov ridiculed the Russian position in Chechnya, saying "anyone who thinks about it a little must see that Russia's military adventure in Chechnya is a total failure." The rebel Muslim leader repeatedly denied any links between his organization and al-Qaida and asserted that the separatist movement "has nothing in common with international terrorism." Maskhadov also rejected the idea of allowing Chechnya to be an internationally administered entity within Russia, arguing that the Palestinian example showed how ineffective such solutions can be.
In a separate Le Monde piece, a fiery op-ed drove home the Chechen viewpoint and lambasted Russia's heavy-handed interventionism. "Nicholas I, Stalin, Putin: implacable continuity. The colonial war in the Caucasus is turning inexorably into an extermination of the local population." The piece went on to disparage the assumption that Chechen rebels have al-Qaida connections: "After the defeat of the Taliban, not one Chechen in Afghanistan, dead, alive, in prison, or at Guantanamo!"
Russia has maintained U.S. support for its war in Chechnya because of the purported connection between Chechnya's Muslim separatists and international terrorists. An article in the Moscow Times (reprinted from The Nation) laid out "Bush's Sellout on Chechnya." The piece contrasted Bush's pre-election disapproval of Russia's bloody occupation of Chechnya with his recent endorsement of Putin (whom he has nicknamed Pootie-Poot) at a Camp David summit, where he named Russia an ally in the war on terror. The piece concluded that Bush's remarks even carried "an implicit endorsement of this weekend's rigged election, which Bush's own State Department says will be a tragic farce."
Almost everyone agrees with that State Department assessment, largely because Kadyrov's strongman tactics have been brutal and utterly unsubtle. An article in France's Le Figaro said Putin is so pleased with his chosen candidate that he has been making appearances with Kadyrov not only in Russia but also abroad and had to be dissuaded from presenting the Chechen to Bush. Putin has brought increasing pressure to bear on the situation within Russia as well: The St. Petersburg Times ran an article Friday on the censorship of a Moscow film festival celebrating Chechen cinema. "Festival organizers accused the authorities of intimidating Kinocenter into canceling the event" but vowed they would show the films at another venue.
Another piece in the Moscow Times discussed the political machinations behind Putin's support of Kadyrov. The article quoted a leaked Russian army report detailing the would-be Chechen president's systematic brutality on his way to Sunday's election and Russia's numerous efforts to help him. According to the Times, Kadyrov's supporters have been extorting money from Chechen businesses and bureaucrats for months while soldiers terrorize voters. The piece went on to argue that the army report was leaked as part of an inter-agency turf battle in Moscow: "The Interior Ministry, which commissioned the report, is in bitter competition with the Federal Security Service … for authority in Chechnya." The piece concluded by noting that some rebel fighters have moved into Ingushetia, a republic neighboring Chechnya and that the conflict in Chechnya is beginning to spill across its borders.