MOSCOW - A career police officer chosen by the Kremlin to lead Russia's war-battered republic of Chechnya was poised yesterday to assume the daunting task of tackling an economy in ruins and an insurgency that shows no signs of waning.
About two hours after polls closed in yesterday's presidential election, acting Chechen President Sergei Abramov said preliminary results showed that Maj. Gen. Alu Alkhanov, the republic's top police official, passed the 50 percent mark needed to win the presidency, the Interfax news agency reported.
The breakaway province's election was held to replace pro-Kremlin Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrov, who was assassinated in a bomb blast in May.
Alkhanov, 47, faced six other candidates in the contest, but his victory was widely seen as a foregone conclusion. His chief threat, Moscow businessman Malik Saidullayev, was removed from the ballot on a technicality, a decision that many observers said was reached solely to ensure Alkhanov's victory.
Alkhanov is set to take the reins of Chechnya at a time when the Kremlin is facing renewed criticism for failing to stabilize the turbulent southern province, ravaged by a decade-long separatist conflict.
Last weekend, separatist guerrillas conducted a daring raid into Chechnya's ruined capital, Grozny, attacking schools and other buildings that were scheduled to be used as polling places. At least 22 Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen servicemen were killed.
Russian officials also are investigating a Chechen link into last week's near-simultaneous crashes of two airliners. Traces of explosives were found in the wreckage of both jets, and investigators are focusing on two Chechen passengers who bought their tickets for the flights at the last minute. Ninety passengers and crew members were killed in the crashes.
In an interview that appeared in a Russian newspaper Friday, Alkhanov bluntly described his mindset as he readied himself for the post of president.
"The main thing now is not to be assassinated," Alkhanov said, "and be able to at least achieve something."
Kadyrov was killed May 9 as he presided over a festival commemorating Russia's victory over Nazi Germany in what Russians call the Great Patriotic War. The bomb that killed him was placed under his VIP box. Two months later, Abramov survived an attempt on his life when a roadside bomb exploded by his motorcade.
Though the Kremlin has tried to portray the separatist insurgency as all but destroyed, Chechen guerrillas have unleashed more brazen, large-scale attacks this year than in years past. One of those attacks included a highly coordinated ambush in June, waged by up to 500 rebel fighters in Chechnya's neighboring republic, Ingushetia. The attack left 90 people dead.
Chechens interviewed in Grozny yesterday said they doubted that Alkhanov's election would make any difference in their lives. Few said they thought the contest was free from Kremlin influence.
Official results of yesterday's election were not expected to be announced until today. However, there appeared to be little doubt that Alkhanov, currently Chechnya's interior minister, would emerge the victor. With Saidullayev off the ballot, Alkhanov's only other obstacle was the requirement that at least 30 percent of eligible Chechen voters turn out to vote.
Chechen election officials said turnout reached 42 percent by yesterday afternoon, well before the polls closed. However, officials with the human-rights organization Memorial said they received reports of mere handfuls of voters appearing at polls, as well as a report of a ballot box stuffed with ballots 15 minutes after the polling station opened.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Zulya Magaziyeva contributed to this article from Grozny.