Chechens Choose A Hero

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GROZNY, Russia: The new president of Chechnya is a military man and separatist war hero--and also a political pragmatist who may be the republic's only chance at winning independence. Aslan Maskhadov, 45, has 63 percent of the vote with about 90 percent counted; official results are expected today. Maskhadov masterminded the daring offensive last August to retake Grozny and bring the Russians to the peace table. He negotiated the deal that made Monday's elections possible. But the Chechens' overwhelming choice of Maskhadov over rival Shamil Basayev, a young rebel leader, shows political savvy in equal parts to gratitude. Moscow considers Basayev a terrorist for his 1995 hostage-taking raid on a southern Russian town, while Maskhadov is seen by Russia as the least of separatist evils. "Maskhadov will not press the problem of recognizing independence for Chechnya immediately so he is the best person both for Russia and Chechnya," said Alexander Iskandarian, director of a Moscow think tank. "He is more practical then other Chechen leaders." That practicality may mean striking another deal. Moscow has spoken vaguely of economic incentives for remaining part of Russia, and Chechnya desperately needs capital to rebuild an infrastructure destroyed by 20 months of heavy fighting. With the international community squarely behind Moscow, Maskhadov knows secession is probably a distant dream. So Monday, he kept his program modest. "People are very tired of war," Maskhadov said Monday. "If people place their trust in me, we will have a chance of a better future."