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Kremlin-backed Candidates Lead Local Chechen Elections

Early returns from Sunday's election for a local parliament in the southern Russian Republic of Chechnya give the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party the lead. Russian President Vladimir Putin says the election is the finishing touch needed to restore order to the restive separatist republic.

Chechnya election commission chairman Ismail Baikhanov says the first official returns from nearly half the republic's more than 400 polling stations show the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party has won about 60 percent of the vote for a new two-chamber parliament.

Mr. Baikhanov says the Communist Party is in second place with about 12 percent of the vote, followed by the Union of Right Forces with just more than 10 percent. Four other Russian political parties picked up under five percent each.

According to Commissioner Baikhanov, turnout was above 66 percent, well more than the 25 percent required to make the election valid.

In remarks broadcast on Russian television, the commissioner says the vote was peaceful, with no major violations reported.

Shortly after the results were announced, President Putin praised security forces for ensuring peace during the vote. Mr. Putin also said his government knows that much work lies ahead. But he said he views the elections as the final step in re-establishing constitutional order in Chechnya, which has been mired in a guerrilla style war with both Chechens and Russians suffering daily casualties for a decade.

Many local residents and western observers are skeptical the vote will do anything to change the daily violence.

Andreas Gross is the head of an eight-person fact-finding delegation from Europe's main human rights body, the Council of Europe. Mr. Gross tells reporters it is impossible to welcome a vote carried out amid, what he calls, a climate of fear.

"We think our critical remarks are pertinent," he said. "These elections have ambivalent culture. People are full of fear. And when you are full of fear, it is difficult to be a good citizen and elect the parliament."

Mr. Gross also says that real power in the region is illegitimate (not elected). His remarks are believed to refer to Chechnya's deputy prime minister, Ramzan Kadyrov, who is the son of a previous Chechen president assassinated by separatist rebels last year.

Mr. Kadyrov wields huge power in Chechnya and is feared by many, thanks largely to his own several-thousand-man security force, which has been accused by human rights groups of carrying out mass disappearances of young men suspected of being rebels.

The separatists say they will not be deterred by Sunday's vote, which they call a charade, and have vowed to continue their fight against Russian rule of Chechnya.