updated 11/27/2005 4:30:36 PM ET 2005-11-27T21:30:36

Chechens voted Sunday in their first parliamentary elections since Russia sent troops back to the Caucasus region six years ago to crush a separatist insurgency.

Moscow has touted the vote as the latest step toward restoring normalcy in the violence-wracked southern republic, but critics fear the new parliament will amount to a rubber stamp for the Chechnya’s Kremlin-backed governing elites.

Few international observers were monitoring the election for flaws that have marred three previous votes.

Some 24,000 troops and police guarded 430 polling stations, with more patrolling most crossroads in western Chechnya and in the capital of Grozny.

Many of the republic’s 600,000 voters said they hoped the new parliament would cement stability in a region plagued by widespread unemployment, a shattered infrastructure and lingering violence between separatist rebels and Russian forces.

“We’re voting so that none of this ever happens again,” said 52-year-old Bella as she waited at a Grozny bus stop with her 6-year-old granddaughter. She declined to give her last name out of fear for her safety.

There were 350 candidates vying for 58 seats in the two-chamber parliament, with most of Russia’s main national political parties fielding contenders.

Rights activists fear the assembly will be packed with supporters of Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, the son of late President Akhmad Kadyrov, who was assassinated in a May 2004 bombing. Ramzan Kadyrov, 29, controls a feared security force accused of abuses ranging from robberies to kidnappings, and he holds vast business interests in Chechnya’s oil industry.

Electoral authorities said preliminary turnout was 57 percent, the Ekho Moskvy radio reported. But the pro-separatist KavkazCenter Web site claimed turnout was dramatically lower — between 5 and 7 percent — and denounced the elections as a “farce.” The Web site did not indicate how it arrived at its figure.

In Grozny, rows of blasted-out apartment blocks and piles of scrap and rubble serve as reminders of the heavy fighting that nearly razed the city of 1 million people in the early 1990s. In some areas, new, multistory buildings stand out with bright paint, modern exteriors and neat landscaping.

Catalyst for peace?
“We are sick of this,” said Salambek Imolayev, a 45-year-old Grozny resident who earns $220 a month as a water delivery man and lives in a crumbling one-room apartment with his wife and three children. “The elections give us something.”

An estimated 100,000 civilians, soldiers and rebels have died in two wars in Chechnya since federal troops first swept into the region in 1994 to crush its bid for independence.

Russia’s forces withdrew after a humiliating defeat in 1996 but stormed back three years later after Chechen rebels raided a neighboring Russian region and were blamed for a series of deadly apartment building bombings.

Moscow hopes Sunday’s elections will serve as a catalyst for peace.

The Kremlin says three previous votes since March 2003 — two for president and one a constitutional referendum — show a return to normalcy, as do a recent rock concert, the construction of a new water amusement park, Grozny’s successful professional soccer team and a boxing tournament opened in September by Mike Tyson.

“You can’t just stand in one place. Life goes on,” said Supen Tachoyev, 47, in the village of Alkhanyurt, west of Grozny. “God willing, things will change. You have to hope for something.”

Other Chechens doubted the vote would improve their lives in a land of at least 60 percent unemployment, regular attacks on troops and police and skirmishes between feuding criminal gangs vying for some of Chechnya’s substantial oil wealth.

Fueling fears are rampant abductions blamed on gangs, Russian troops and paramilitaries. Nearly 1,700 people kidnapped in recent years are still missing, government officials say.

‘Nothing ever changes’
Marina Makhchiyeva, 59, said two of her sons were killed during the region’s second war and her third son died after being beaten by suspected paramilitaries.

“I’m sick of burying my children,” she said, selling onions, cigarettes and dried fish in Assinovskaya, a village 30 miles west of Grozny.

She planned to vote later Sunday, but said “nothing is going to change. This is Chechnya, nothing ever changes.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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