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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Few Unknowns, Scant Hope in Chechen Vote

GROZNY -- An election is coming Sunday. You can tell because the capital is awash in campaign posters, almost all of them for one man.

"Clean Intentions, Strong Power," says one, which shows Akhmad Kadyrov wearing the classic fur hat of a Chechen clansman. Or simply, "Kadyrov, Our President."

A large poster of the former Muslim cleric even hangs above the headquarters of one of his six rivals, Nikolai Paizulayev. At first, a spokesman for the rival campaign said, it was thought that Kadyrov was going to occupy the building. When Paizulayev's team moved in, he said, "we thought we would just let it stay there."

On Chechen state television, the only candidate who has purchased advertising time is -- surprise -- Kadyrov, even though, as director Beslan Khaladov boasts, "We have the cheapest television time in Russia."

Seven men are vying to be president of Chechnya under President Vladimir Putin's plan to end years of war and halt -- by ballots this time, instead of tanks -- the republic's stubborn ambition for independence. But the other six candidates have nothing that compares to Kadyrov's advantage. Their posters don't show them shaking Putin's hand.

The main drama in Sunday's elections, many human rights observers say, is how handily the Kremlin-appointed administrator of Chechnya will become its elected president.

Kadyrov's own press minister, Bislan Gantamirov, estimated in August that his boss, whose clandestine security force many Chechens have come to fear more than federal forces, would get less than 5 percent of the vote "if people are not forced to vote for him."

Three weeks later, Gantamirov was fired and the Grozny television station he founded was surrounded by armed security forces. New polls came out showing Kadyrov would win better than half the vote.

If there were any remaining doubts, they were erased on Sept. 11, when one of Kadyrov's two serious challengers, Aslanbek Aslakhanov, accepted a job as a Kremlin advisor. The Chechen Supreme Court threw Kadyrov's other main rival, Malik Saidullayev, a popular businessman, out of the race.

"From that moment on, the elections -- which were a farce -- turned into a veritable theater of the absurd," said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, which announced, along with other international organizations, that it would not monitor the polls.

But many Chechens appear to believe that the balloting may be the ticket out of a wasteland of war -- if the Chechen rebels' promise to disrupt the election by all possible means doesn't prevent voters from getting to the polls.

"I will vote for Kadyrov!" Grozny resident Khamzat Batayev said with a wide smile. "If I make it safely to the polling station. If I'm not kidnapped or killed on the way, or blown to pieces in a polling booth."

But many Russians fear that by backing Kadyrov, a rebel leader before switching sides three years ago, and allowing him to build his own security forces, the Kremlin is sowing the seeds of conflict -- between Kadyrov's forces and the rebels. Or equally possibly, with a Kadyrov force that decides to switch sides again.

"It is still a mystery to me why the Kremlin is breeding this new force that clearly will have to be fought against, with weapons. There is no doubt about it," said Anna Politkovskaya, who covers Chechnya for Novaya Gazeta. "The Kremlin is creating a situation where the third Chechen war simply becomes imminent."

In a five-story relocation center for returning refugees, where as many as 16 people are living in each four-room apartment, most families said they would have backed Malik Saidullayev, if they voted at all.

"I frankly, absolutely don't care who wins this election, if you want my opinion," said Adam Iderbiyev, a 58-year-old former financial controller. "Because I have no hope for anybody or anything."

At Kadyrov's headquarters, campaign manager Taus Dzhabrailov said Kadyrov would easily win the election because the public knows he is the only man who can bring stability. "We can criticize everything until we're blue in the face, but we need elected power to do anything about it," he said.

Kadyrov's challengers remain optimistic.

"I am convinced. Maybe we will not have it today or tomorrow. But I am 100 percent sure that after the election, we will have quite different realities of life," said Kudis Saduyev, deputy director of the state gas company and a candidate.

"No, we don't have fair chances. No, we don't have equal possibilities. But this is the situation in the republic right now," added another candidate, Khusein Biybulatov, a former deputy premier of the Chechen republic.

"Danger exists. Threats come. Lives of relatives and supporters are threatened. Everybody knows about it," he said. "But we can't not hold these elections. We need to put an end to these conditions. We are deliberately taking the risks because if we don't hold elections, even in such conditions, we will have this war for another 10 years."