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Talk peace in Chechnya

UNFORTUNATELY for the world, the coming elections of a president of Chechnya (as a state of the Russian Federation) will not contribute to peace or stability for Russia or for Chechnya. It certainly will not advance the war against terrorism. The reason is simple enough: Russia has stage-managed the voting process in a time of war without the agreement or participation of President Aslan Maskhadov and his independence fighters. Let us not forget that Maskhadov was elected the legitimate president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya in 1997 in voting that was declared free and fair by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Security.

It is notable that in the coming "elections" of Oct. 5, no credible international observers such as the OSCE or recognized human rights organizations have agreed to monitor the voting. It is already clear the electoral process is flawed.

In the run-up to the election, for example, more than 10 opposition candidates presented themselves. Yet all candidates who could have caused a real challenge to Russia's favorite, Akhmad Kadyrov, have dropped out because of threats from Moscow or job offers which were too difficult to refuse.

Aslanbek Aslakhanov withdrew after President Putin appointed him his assistant for the south of Russia. Malik Saidullayev was disqualified when his nomination papers were declared to be faulty. This case is now on appeal in the court system. The tragedy is that Russia and the world need peace to be restored in the Northern Caucasus. The longer the war, which started in 1994, goes on the more desperate the situation will become. Like Iraq, Chechnya is turning into a magnet, which is inciting the most extreme tendencies such as the barbarous attacks of Russian forces against the Chechen population.

For Russia, the continuing conflict is appalling.

Some 50 Russian soldiers die there every week. Powerful truck bomb explosions against supposedly secure targets occur regularly. Russia is maintaining a force of more than 150,000 men in Chechnya who are increasingly demoralized by their inability to control the situation. The costs of maintaining these men is putting a serious strain on Moscow's limited military budget and is causing funds supplied from the West for reconstruction of the Russian economy and development of democracy to be diverted for war purposes.

Russia has earned the condemnation of reputable human rights organizations for its mass abuses during antiterrorist clean-up operations (zachistkas) during the last four years even if President Bush and President Putin try to play down or ignore this embarrassment. For Chechnya, the situation is disastrous, too. Some 75 percent of its territory is recognized as "environmentally contaminated," with a large portion of its buildings destroyed. There has been leakage of nuclear wastes into the Caspian Sea. A quarter of newborns come into this world with birth defects. Thousands of residents suffer from tuberculosis. Of Chechnya's original population of one million, one quarter has been killed during the two wars (1994-96 and 1999 to the present) and 350,000 have been turned into refugees.

There is no security in Chechnya today. People live in constant fear that they will die unexpectedly in the next five minutes from marauding Russian troops by day or in the crossfire of guerrilla operations at night. The people's only remaining right is to be killed with impunity.

Russia's mistake is to believe that it can crush the independence fighters like mosquitos. President Putin declared in 1999 that Russian forces would seek out terrorists wherever they were, and even "drown them in the toilet" if they found them there.

But this is impossible to do. The fighters opposing the Russian occupation amount to only several thousand men. Every year, hundreds more youths are replacing the killed and wounded fighters. And this replacement process will continue, engaging ever more elements of the Chechen population.

What is happening is that the good relations which existed during Soviet times between Chechen and Russians are now being replaced by total hatred. Cooperation is gone: Russia has sown the whirlwind.

Yet, in life, it is never too late. As the Americans say, "Today is the first day of the rest of your life." In any event, Chechnya cannot change its geographical position. It is condemned to live beside Russia in good times or in bad.

Recognizing this factor, the Chechen government has put forward a peace plan which calls for negotiations to begin a real peace process between Russia and Chechnya under the temporary administration of the United Nations. This would be similar to the UN's role in East Timor and Kosovo. While the government of President Putin has ignored this invitation for peaceful talks, it remains on the table. It is a subject for discussion.

Therefore, I take the occasion of this so-called election in Chechnya, to appeal once again to all men of good will to seek a peaceful, negotiated solution to prevent the Northern Caucasus from turning into a center of evil.

Ilyas Akhmadov is foreign minister of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya.

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