Voters go to the polls in Chechnya on Sunday to choose a new local parliament, an election that the Kremlin hopes will further a policy of "normalization" in the conflict-torn republic. But many Chechens and analysts predict little effect on the violence and corruption that has exhausted and alienated a population desperate for peace.
Eight Russian political parties, none of them avowed secessionists, are running candidates for all seats in the two-chamber parliament, and the pro-Kremlin United Russia party will likely win a clear majority, according to opinion polls. More than 350 people, including independents, are running for a total of 61 seats.
Many who live in the Russian republic, the scene of two full-scale wars in the last decade and now scarred by a low-grade but vicious conflict, have little faith in the process. According to an opinion poll by SK-Strategia, a research institute with offices in the Chechen capital of Grozny, up to 68 percent of Chechens believe that the elections will not be fair and 72 percent say the outcome will be dictated by Ramzan Kadyrov, the republic's powerful first deputy prime minister.
"The choice is wide," said Abdullah Istamulov, president of SK-Strategia, whose work is funded by the European Union, the British Foreign Office and Canada, "but there is a common feeling that one person will decide."
Kadyrov, 29, is the son of former president Akhmad Kadyrov, who was assassinated last year. Under the republic's constitution, Kadyrov is too young to become president; many people view his current position as an interim post until he is 30 and can rise legally to the top job.
Kadyrov commands his own paramilitary force. Human rights groups have accused him and members of the unit of widespread abuses, including involvement in kidnappings and disappearances that continue to plague the region.
Kadyrov has repeatedly pledged his loyalty to Russian President Vladimir Putin. His ascent after his father's death is part of a wider policy to turn over much of the running of the republic to Chechens loyal to the Kremlin and to scale back direct Russian involvement, including the presence of Russian troops.
The parliamentary elections are the third leg in a political process. Chechens already adopted a constitution in 2003 and later that year held a presidential election. Human rights groups condemned those votes as rigged.
The parliamentary elections are to be observed by the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and monitors from former Soviet republics, among others, but no Western election observers. The Council of Europe, a 46-country body based in Strasbourg, France, plans to send a fact-finding team, but it will not have observer status.
"Voters will have an opportunity to make their political choice freely and decide by themselves who will fill the seats in parliament," said Dmitry Kozak, Putin's special envoy in southern Russia. "The elections are extremely important for the Chechen republic and its residents."
A group of Russian human rights groups, including Memorial, said in a report this past week that elections cannot disguise the drumbeat of violence and will do little if anything to stop it.
Apart from United Russia, the other parties running include the Communist Party and the Union of Right Forces, generally seen as opposition parties in the rest of Russia. But in Chechnya, analysts said, traditional party politics are almost irrelevant and each slate has candidates loyal to Kadyrov.
A former rebel, Magomed Khambiyev, 43, who served as defense minister in a breakaway Chechen government in 1999, is running on the Union of Right Forces party list. The party was reportedly pressured by Kadyrov to include him.
The small Republican Party, which formed an alliance with nongovernmental organizations in the republic, was not allowed to run after it refused to accept the names of people whom Kadyrov and his allies wanted on the party list, party leaders said. Election officials instead cited problems with signatures that the party gathered to support its application.
"After this election, all branches of power, legislative and executive, will be concentrated in the hands of Kadyrov and those loyal to him," said Sergei Markedonov, a specialist on Chechnya at the Institute for Political and Military Analysis in Moscow.
Survey data suggest that Chechens are weary of the conflict and increasingly accept Moscow's rule if it can bring stability. According to the Institute of Social Marketing in Moscow, the number of Chechens who accept Russian rule has jumped from 67 percent to 86 percent in the last three years.
But some analysts believe that Kadyrov is a disastrous vehicle for the Kremlin's policies and that he might, ultimately, turn on his masters, opening the possibility of yet more warfare in Chechnya.
"The republic's power is getting stronger and its appetites are growing," said Markedonov. "Russia gave great power and great resources to a republican elite, which declared its loyalty to Moscow. But it's not real loyalty. Most members of Kadyrov's group are separatists, and Moscow is cultivating them. In some years, they will challenge Moscow."