Four years after Vladimir Putin vowed to hunt down Chechen rebels, the Kremlin is looking to the ballot box as the place to end the war.
Or at least, say skeptics, to make it seem to end.
An election Sunday for Chechen president is the crowning event in Moscow's "normalization" plan for the bloodied southern corner of Russia. But critics of the government say the virtually uncontested race will do little to end the conflict and its main purpose is to allow Putin to claim victory in Chechnya ahead ofRussia's presidential election next year.
Russian troops have battled separatists in Chechnya since 1999, when war flared up in the mostly Muslim, Connecticut-sized region for the second time since the Soviet Union collapsed. Rebels continue to suck strength out of the Russian army, inflicting daily casualties with hit-and-run attacks and land mines. Meanwhile, bombings blamed on the rebels have killed more than 75 people outside Chechnya this year alone.
Despite the grim picture, the government claims peace is steadily taking hold. It points to a March referendum, at which Chechen voters turned out in huge numbers to give more than 90 percent approval to a new constitution confirming Chechnya's status
as an internal Russian republic.
Sunday's election will give the Kremlin another concrete milestone to boast of and allow it to give its Chechen supporters more responsibility for running the war and government.
That is important for Putin, who rose to the presidency pledging to rout the rebels as the latest war began. In 1999, while still prime minister, he pledged to "rub out" Chechen fighters wherever they were - even "in the outhouse."
Failure to end the conflict hasn't dented his overwhelming popularity, yet Chechnya is the one issue that can make the usually reserved Russian lose his temper.
When U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Steven Pifer recently questioned the upcoming Chechnya election, Putin dismissed him as "a middle-level diplomat" whose remarks were unworthy of comment.
Keeping Chechnya under Russian sovereignty matters greatly to Putin if he is to hold his post-communist country together.
Chechnya also matters in the worldwide war on terrorism. After the Sept. 11 attacks the United States became sympathetic to Russian claims that it was fighting terrorism in Chechnya.
At his summit Saturday with Putin, President Bush backed the Russian leader, saying "terrorists must be opposed wherever they spread chaos and destruction, including Chechnya." He said solving the conflict "will require an end to terror, respect for human
rights and a political settlement that leads to free and fair elections."
However, some Russian analysts say if the United States really cares about international terrorism, it should get more interested in Chechnya and Russia's behavior there.
Like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Chechnya is a powerful symbol for radical Muslims throughout the world, said Emil Pain, who advised Boris Yeltsin, Putin's predecessor, on ethnic minorities.
Fighting Chechen separatism and terrorism through an often-brutal military presence and a questionable election is shortsighted and will only further stoke radicalism, he said.
For Putin and his aides, "the appearance of order is more important than order itself," said Pain. "The president promised to solve the problem, and they've solved it. ... They're not really concerned about what happens later."
Several thousand Russian soldiers have died in the war and Chechen terrorism has struck in the heart of Moscow – most dramatically when rebels took over a theater a year ago and held 800 people hostage. A Russian rescue raid left 129 hostages dead.
But generally the public knows very little about what is happening in Chechnya. Kremlin restrictions and rebel violence have placed the territory virtually off limits to journalists and human rights groups. The government hasn't issued updated military casualty figures in months.
"Our society has gotten used to Chechnya," says Alexei Malashenko, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "It's like a bad leg: So it hurts a little - I'm used to it."
From the start, many observers were skeptical an election would bring peace to Chechnya, where kidnappings, arbitrary detentions and killings are commonplace. That opinion was reinforced after all the viable challengers to Akhmad Kadyrov, the region's acting president, withdrew or were sidelined.
If the unpopular Kadyrov wins by default, "then this threatens a catastrophe," said Malashenko.
Kadyrov's leading challenger, Malik Saidullayev, was forced out after a court ruled some of the signatures supporting his candidacy had been forged.
On the same day, Aslambek Aslakhanov, who represents Chechnya in parliament, withdrew after accepting a job as an adviser to Putin.
According to a June poll of 1,000 people in Chechnya by the Validata company, 20 percent of respondents said they would vote for Saidullayev. Just under 18 percent named Aslakhanov, and 13 percent picked Kadyrov. Some 19 percent chose Ruslan Khasbulatov, former speaker of the Russian parliament who in August said he
would run but never registered his candidacy. Respondents were asked an open question with no list of choices, and, as is usually the case in Russian polls, no margin of error was given.
"The outcome of the election is predetermined," said Zelimkhan Musayev, a 33-year-old Chechen man. "But if Saidullayev had remained in the race, the people's will would not be in favor of Kadyrov."
Sergei Kovalyov, a Russian lawmaker and human rights campaigner, said Saidullayev and Aslakhanov were Moscow loyalists, but were pushed out because they could only be helpful to the Kremlin in a negotiating situation, and "Putin deliberately has chosen a policy of force."
Kadyrov still faces six challengers, but given the low level of campaigning, many voters still don't know their names.
In contrast, the front-runner's portrait is all over Chechnya along with the campaign slogan, "Pure intentions, strong leadership," and billboards showing him shaking hands with Putin.
The 52-year-old Kadyrov was born in Kazakhstan, where the dictator Josef Stalin deported the Chechen populace en masse during World War II in one of many acts of cruelty that stoke anti-Russian resentment in Chechnya. Repatriated as a boy, he became a religious leader and rebel supporter before switching to Putin's side.
Kadyrov is disliked in Chechnya primarily because of his personal security force, run by his son Ramzan. The force is reported to number in the thousands and allegedly kills, tortures and kidnaps with impunity. Kadyrov's administration denies any wrongdoing by the force.
"Kadyrov is accused of a wide range of crimes, from corruption to fielding his own personal army," reports CBS NewsCorrespondent Beth Knobel. "Because he's controversial, the Kremlin is using heavy handed tactics to make sure he'll win--driving every major candidate out of the race except Kadyrov."
It's one of several Chechen armed groups loyal to Kadyrov and operating legally. For the Kremlin it's another reason to back Kadyrov: If he lost, those groups could well become another rebel faction.
After the election, some analysts expect the Kremlin to hand over more responsibility for keeping order in Chechnya to Kadyrov and local forces. Already, Chechen police do much of the fighting against rebels.
"It's nice to pull the chestnut from the fire with somebody else's hands," said Kovalyov, the lawmaker.