Chechnya's coming election, the departure of the challengers with a realistic chance against the Kremlin's favored candidate, has raised questions about the legitimacy of the ballot. Some analysts say Akhmad Kadyrov, who heads the Moscow-backed administration, faces no serious competition.
The electoral campaign for a new Chechen president started with 15 candidates. Now, with less than three weeks left until polling day, only seven remain.
Last week, one of the three main contenders withdrew from the race unexpectedly. Aslanbek Aslakhanov, the only Chechen to represent the state in Russia's lower house of parliament, the Duma, said it was a difficult decision. But in announcing his departure, he said he was leaving the race of his own free will.
Mr. Aslakhanov says he came to the decision alone after careful deliberation. "Those who know me," he said, "know that it is impossible to pressure me."
But not everyone is so sure.
Independent analyst Masha Lippmann sees the Kremlin's hand behind the sidelining of the last two serious challengers in the race. She takes particular issue with Chechen candidate Aslakhanov's departure, noting he was immediately offered, and accepted, a job from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"I think this move to appoint him to become [President] Putin's personal advisor was a very thinly disguised attempt to make Kadyrov's situation in the election a little easier," she said. "Now, he still has a few contenders, but none of them have the slightest chance of being elected. And this way Kadyrov has both an appearance of a democratic election and a guarantee to be elected as Chechen president."
Ms. Lippmann notes that the other candidate to leave the race, former Chechen Prime Minister Malik Saidullayev, is appealing the electoral committee's decision to remove him for alleged registration violations. Mr. Saidullayev says Kremlin insiders who support Mr. Kadyrov are responsible for his disqualification.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman on Chechnya, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, has welcomed a third challengers' departure from the electoral scene, that of Aslan Maskhadov, a separatist leader who laid claim to the title of Chechen president in 1997.
Mr. Yastrzhembsky says Mr. Maskhadov's impeachment removes "the last argument from those who wanted to force federal authorities to sit down at the peace table with Mr. Maskhadov."
Mr. Yastrzhembsky, who the Kremlin says is the only official authorized to speak on Chechnya, was unavailable for further comment on the elections.
The Chechen constitutional court impeached Mr. Maskhadov last Friday at the request of the republic's parliament.
President Putin has long maintained Russia will not negotiate with terrorists, including Mr. Maskhadov.
Vladimir Pribylovski heads an independent research center in Moscow, known as Panorama. He says that, while the Kremlin obviously welcomes last week's whittling down of the challenger list, he predicts it could backfire.
Mr. Pribylovski says the number of cases in which challengers decline or withdraw from a race is becoming more and more prevalent in Russia under President Putin's leadership. He says the Kremlin keeps in the race only those candidates who do not seem to pose a serious threat to its favorite. Mr. Pribylovski calls it visual democracy. He says the Russian electoral system is deeply flawed.
The Chechen election is the central part of Kremlin efforts to convince the Russian people and the world that the second military campaign it launched in Chechnya four-years ago is over and that a process of political stability has begun.
President Putin has characterized the election as a first step on the road to peace. But critics, like Ms. Lippmann, say it is impossible to hold a legitimate election, as long as Russian soldiers, Chechen separatists, and civilians still die on an almost daily basis.
"This travesty of a political process pretends that there is no war in Chechnya and that no Chechen fighters exist. It just pretends that they are not there," she said. "There can be no peace process, or a political solution, or an election for that matter, unless there is either a victory or some sort of a truce. And any truce can only be achieved in the course of talks. They [Russia] cannot pretend simply that the enemy is not there."
Criticism and continuing violence aside, the Kremlin is determined to press ahead with the vote, which now pits six unknown challengers against Mr. Kadyrov. He controls the local administration in Chechnya and much of the Southern Russian republic's media.
Mr. Kadyrov's likely victory, analyst Pribylovski says, is unlikely to end violence in Chechnya or add legitimacy to its government.
He says Chechen separatists opposed to the Kremlin-backed elections will continue terrorist acts in Chechnya. As for the international community, Mr. Pribylovski says, he does not believe anyone in the West will recognize the elections in Chechnya as legitimate. At the same time, he says, he doubts there will be any serious opposition.
Ms. Lippmann agrees the Russians, who are growing increasingly weary of Chechnya, will pay little attention to the presidential election, much less protest against its legitimacy.
The Moscow Helsinki Human Rights Group has already concluded the Chechen election is not going to be fair, and announced it will not be sending its monitors there.