DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
Voters in the Russian republic of Chechnya cast ballots today for a local parliament. The election is supposed to be the final stage of a Kremlin plan to restore order in the breakaway republic, where tens of thousands of people have died in a decade of war. NPR's Gregory Feifer is reporting on the vote and joins me now.
Greg, we should be clear it's very difficult for reporters to travel independently in Chechnya, and you've been escorted today by Russian security forces. Are they with you now?
GREGORY FEIFER reporting:
Yes. We're actually in an army base in the city of Grozny. We crossed the border into Chechnya this morning. We were escorted by Russian special forces, heavily armed with high-caliber automatic rifles. We saw two voting stations in the north of the country, which is relatively pro-Moscow. We saw some activity when we arrived, but there were almost no voters when we left. Then we drove south to Grozny, where we saw a voting station amid bombed-out buildings, and that voting station was virtually empty. I think I saw maybe two people actually voting.
Most voters whom I spoke with gave virtually the same answers to the questions that I posed them. They all said, `We're for peace and friendship, and we expect that from these elections.' But I did manage to speak to a number of Chechens who said that the process was a joke, that you can't talk about democratic elections in what's essentially a war zone.
ELLIOTT: Did you get the sense that the people that you were speaking with were telling you something because they felt like that's all they could say with the officers there?
FEIFER: That's absolutely right. People feel very constrained. I actually got four or five winks, people saying that they support the elections and they expect the best and, you know, winking at me that that's really not what they believe at all.
ELLIOTT: We used to hear a lot about the separatist war there in Chechnya, you know, Russian planes bombing cities, rebels attacking Russian soldiers, assassinating local officials even. Is Chechnya any more stable now?
FEIFER: Well, the Kremlin says it's more stable, certainly. The Kremlin says there's a political process going on and that these elections are part of that process, the final step. And most of the candidates running in this election say that the situation has stabilized. But human rights groups say that that's just an illusion, that it's really an image of a political process presented by the Kremlin to hide an intractable stalemate. Human rights defenders speak of two Chechnyas: One is the Kremlin's image, in which there's rebuilding and a peace process going on; and a second Chechnya, which is the real Chechnya, in which violence continues and there are disappearances and people die almost daily.
ELLIOTT: Do you have the sense that the citizens of Chechnya think that the vote today will in any way change things there?
FEIFER: Some people say that even if a few independent candidates get elected, it will be beneficial to Chechnya. One of the things that's striking is that the candidates spoke a lot about social and economic programs, programs to get the youth off the streets. But again, human rights groups say that the candidates are afraid to speak about the number-one concern for all Chechens, and that's security. And they say they're afraid to talk about it because they're fearful themselves and that that's just part of the terror that's still very much part of this whole region.
ELLIOTT: NPR's Gregory Feifer, talking with us from Grozny in Chechnya. Thank you.
FEIFER: My pleasure.