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US:  Chechen Election Did Not Meet International Standards - 2003-10-06

The United States is expressing disappointment over Sunday's presidential election in Chechnya. The State Department says the contest, easily won by the Moscow-backed candidate, Akhmad Kadyrov, did not meet international standards for free and fair elections.

U.S. officials say that when plans for a constitutional referendum and a presidential election for Chechnya were first announced some time ago, it appeared that the election could be a useful step toward a political settlement in the strife-ridden southern Russian region.

However, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher says the presidential vote Sunday and the process leading up it fell short of their potential for producing a positive democratic outcome.

"The exit of all viable challengers to Akhmad Kadyrov's candidacy, and the overt control of Chechen media by pro-Kadyrov forces prior to election day, lead us to conclude that the election did not meet international standards for free and fair elections," he said. "We are disappointed by this missed opportunity."

According to local election officials, Mr. Kadyrov, who has been running Chechnya as Russian President Vladimir Putin's appointed administrator, won more than 80 percent of the vote against a field of six challengers. Human rights groups and Russian critics of the process say stronger candidates had either been disqualified or pressured to leave the race.

Spokesman Boucher said U.S. officials had repeatedly raised concerns about the election process, including President Bush at his Camp David meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin late last month.

Mr. Boucher said it is "unclear" whether Sunday's election will have sufficient credibility and legitimacy among the Chechen people to advance settlement efforts.

Nonetheless, he expressed hope that Chechens, working with Russian officials, will find ways to end terrorism and human rights abuses, and resolve the conflict so that the region can have a "more normal life based on democratic principles."

Chechen separatists have been fighting Russian authorities to establish an independent republic for more than a decade in a conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives, mostly civilians.

Though the United States has labeled some Chechen factions as terrorist groups, it has urged dialogue between Russia and mainline Chechen groups, and Mr. Boucher Monday reaffirmed the U.S. view that there can be no military solution to the problem.