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Russia's Choice for Chechnya Proclaims Victory in Elections

By Vanora Bennett
Los Angeles Times
GROZNY, Russia

Reports that Russia's preferred candidate for president in separatist Chechnya had won the election here gained strength Tuesday when Aslan Maskhadov proclaimed himself the new leader of the southern republic on the basis of leaked, partial results.

Surrounded by armed guards and solemn advisers in fur hats, Maskhadov swept into a post-election meeting with journalists and listened impassively as his spokesman announced his victory.

"Today we start the first press conference with Mr. Aslan Maskhadov in his capacity as president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria," Mayerbek Vachagayev said, using the name the separatists give to their republic, which Russia calls Chechnya.

He claimed that figures from all but five of Chechnya's 63 voting districts gave Maskhadov, the Chechen commander who made peace, about 65 percent of popular support - such a strong showing that there would be no need for a runoff.

This, of course, was not an official result, with votes continuing to be tallied - slowly - Tuesday. And Maskhadov's opponent offered no sign of conceding the contest.

But Russia breathed a sigh of relief at the news that Maskhadov, a former Soviet colonel whom Moscow sees as a moderate, appeared to be the victor.

After losing a two-year war with separatists in Chechnya, Russia had been worried that it would lose the peace too if Shamil Basayev, the deeply anti-Russian commander who is one of Chechnya's most loved and respected warriors, got the job instead.

Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin is "fully satisfied" with the way the elections were run, spokesman Sergei V. Yastrzhembsky said Tuesday, quickly dropping the long list of quibbles about electoral procedures Moscow had raised during the campaign.

Yastrzhembsky said there were now serious grounds to hope the "productive negotiating process" with Chechnya will go on.

Equally quickly, however, Maskhadov made plain he is not the political pushover Moscow hopes to do business with but the inheritor of separatists who declared Chechen independence in 1991, before the Soviet collapse.

Under a peace treaty signed in August, after bands of Chechen fighters chased the huge Russian army from Grozny, their capital, Russia and Chechnya now have five years in which to "define their relations."

Russia interprets this as a cooling-off period in which to rebuild economic ties with Chechnya and route oil from former Soviet countries profitably back into Russia through pipelines crossing Chechnya. Many Russian politicians hope the issue of Chechen independence will quietly be forgotten.

But Chechens have no intention of returning to Russian control. As far as they are concerned, independence is a done deal and all that remains is to make Russia and the rest of the world see things their way.

Maskhadov's past might have been in the Russian-dominated Soviet army. But he went on to become the separatist chief of staff and made clear Tuesday that his view of the future is purely Chechen.

"The first and second steps were taken in 1991: that Chechnya became an independent state and that sovereignty was declared," he said. "Now there is just one task left - to get our independence recognized by everyone, including Russia - which we will achieve by political means.

"There are five years in which to consider this in a sober way," he added. "But we want to define our relations with Russia as soon as possible. Everything now depends on Moscow. If Russian leaders at last understand that they have tried everything and that the only thing left is to sit down at the negotiating table and at last sort out who we are, then we are ready any time, even tomorrow or the next day."

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, which has sent 72 observers to Chechnya to monitor voting, pronounced the elections for president and a new 63-member parliament free and fair, so far.

With Chechnya's telephone network taken out by the war, vote-counting is a painstaking, time-consuming business. Walkie-talkie radios supplied by the OSCE have helped Grozny compile election results from remote hill districts.

But spokesmen said the electoral commission could probably only offer preliminary results Wednesday.

Maskhadov was the clear front-runner of the candidates for the presidency, all leading separatists.