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In the Russian Republic of Chechnya, the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party has collected the most votes in yesterday's parliamentary elections say officials there. The ballot is a major step in the Russian government's announced plans to normalize conditions in the war-torn republic, and human rights activists say Moscow's campaign hides a brutal conflict showing no signs of ending. NPR's Gregory Feifer reports from the Chechnyan capital.
GREGORY FEIFER reporting:
The village of Asherska(ph) lies 60 miles northeast of Grozny in the flat plains that spread above the foggy Caucuses Mountains. Fall comes late here. The smell of burning leaf piles pervades the air. People walk in twos and threes down a muddy lane past single-story wooden houses to a freshly painted school.
It's here in the relatively pro-Moscow north of the region that the Russian government has brought several busloads of foreign journalists to observe Chechens voting. The group is well-protected by special forces troops carrying high-caliber automatic rifles.
Shera Pott Adonova(ph) is one of the voters in Asherska. She says she has high hopes the new parliament will fight for the interests of most Chechens. She says she wants to lead a normal life and see an end to the violence that grips this volatile region.
(Soundbite of crowd)
Ms. SHERA POTT ADONOVA (Chechnyan): (Through Translator) Peace, happiness and friendship. That's the most important thing, isn't it? So that men and women aren't abducted and robbed for there to be peace.
FEIFER: That's almost word for word what the group of journalists hear from most other voters. Away from the watchful eyes of the government's minders, you get a different story. In the village of Chernakosava(ph), several miles away, Magameer(ph) says he refuses to vote because he doesn't want to take part in a political show orchestrated by the Kremlin. He doesn't want to give his last name, saying he lives in an area where Russian troops often come looking for rebels.
MAGAMEER: (Through Translator) This is all a joke. If anything, the elections will create more freeloaders.
FEIFER: Eight parties are contesting spots in the 40-seat legislature. The pro-Kremlin United Russia Party is expected to win the most seats. Most of its members are allied to Chechnya's de facto leader, the pro-Moscow strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov.
In Grozny, the voting took place amid the bombed-out hulks of buildings of this ruined city. Here, even the Russian authorities could muster no more than a few people to come out to vote. Haliman Maharori(ph) sells fruit by a roadside. She says she's more concerned about where she's going to find several buckets of water to lug back to her apartment.
Ms. HALIMAN MAHARORI: (Through Translator) The election will solve absolutely nothing. How can you talk about any kind of solution when the government can't solve the problem of water or rebuilding? How much longer is it possible to live like this?
FEIFER: Hussein Aleif(ph) is a candidate from the liberal Yabika Party(ph). He says he believes Chechnya can recover from the war.
Mr. HUSSEIN ALEIF (Candidate, Yabika Party): (Through Translator) It's vital to build kindergartens, to create sports and cultural complexes, to give interest-free credits for families to grow.
FEIFER: But human rights groups say even the liberal candidates are helping Moscow create a false image of a real political process. They talk of two Chechnyas, the Kremlin's and the real one. Tetchana Lookshana(ph) heads Moscow's Demas Group(ph). She says the candidates won't discuss the biggest issue in Chechnya today: security.
Ms. TETCHANA LOOKSHANA (Candidate, Demas Group): (Through Translator) You'd think the Democratic Party candidates would talk about precisely those kinds of problems. But they don't talk about it. They don't talk about it out of fear.
FEIFER: Lookshana says Moscow's real strategy is to pit pro-Moscow Chechnyan paramilitary groups against the rebels. The process is called Chechnyanization(ph). Meanwhile, casualties continue on both sides almost daily. Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Grozny.
RENEE MONTAGNE (Host): This is NPR News.
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