The pro-Kremlin United Russia party swept to an easy victory in elections Sunday for a local parliament in Chechnya, according to preliminary returns Monday. Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed the vote as a key step in restoring order in the republic, the scene of years of separatist war, but critics of the election, including some Western European observers, said it would do little to foster real democratic decision-making.
Early results gave the United Russia party more than 60 percent of the vote in the race for the two-chamber parliament, with the Communist Party winning about 12 percent and the Union of Right Forces 11 percent.
"This completes the formal legal procedures of restoring the constitutional system in the Chechen Republic," Putin said in televised remarks. Chechens voted in 2003 to approve a new constitution, followed by a presidential election.
People in Chechnya "have again demonstrated in the most convincing way their strength of character, political maturity and organization," Putin said. "They have demonstrated that no one can ever intimidate them."
But many political analysts contend that the election will only solidify the power of Ramzan Kadyrov, the pro-Moscow deputy prime minister who commands a paramilitary force that has been implicated in violence and abductions. Kadyrov is widely expected to rise to the presidency of Chechnya next year soon after he turns 30, the minimum age for the office.
About 100,000 civilians, soldiers and insurgents have died in two full-scale wars in Chechnya in the last 11 years. While fighting has abated recently, a drumbeat of daily violence continues. The Kremlin is scaling back direct involvement as it pursues a policy of delegating governance and security to its local supporters, in particular Kadyrov.
Critics of that policy say Kadyrov, whose father, Akhmad Kadyrov, was Chechnya's president until his assassination last year, has little legitimacy and that it is difficult, if not impossible, to conduct free and fair elections in a climate of fear.
"We face a very weak democratic power and a very strong real power, and this real power is out of control," said Andreas Gross, who headed a fact-finding delegation from the Council of Europe, the continent's leading human rights organization. "Real power . . . is based on a legitimacy that is not democratic."
Turnout in the elections exceeded 60 percent, according to Chechnya's Central Elections Commission.
People openly advocating Chechnya's independence from Russia were not allowed to run in the elections. A separatist Web site condemned the election as a farce.
"The overall number of people who really voted will hardly exceed five- to seven-percent," said the separatist Kavkaz Center on its Web site. The Chechen people are "not going to participate in a show organized by their killers and their accomplices."
Human rights groups questioned the official turnout figures. "The normally busy center of Grozny remained empty all day," the Russian human rights group Memorial said in a statement Monday. "Low voter turnout was reported by the chairmen of all polling stations that Memorial representatives visited."
Speaking at a military base in Grozny, Gross called on the Russian and Chechen authorities to include separatists in the political process.
Alu Alkhanov, the president of Chechnya, suggested that he was open to such a dialogue. "I will soon visit Brussels and meet the so-called leaders of Ichkeria," he said at a news conference Monday. Ichkeria is the word separatists use for Chechnya. "There is no creation, development or democratic process without peace. We should promote a normal life for militants in Chechnya and people who happened to move to the West due to certain circumstances and misunderstandings."