Little Hope in Poll for Ethnic Russians

TISHENSKOYE, Southern Russia -- Monday's elections in Chechnya are meant to be a new start for the war-shattered republic, but for homeless ethnic-Russian refugees there is little to hope for.

Tatyana Ivanovna, who fled the Chechen capital Grozny in 1995 early in the 21-month war, said ethnic-Russian refugees had been forgotten by Moscow and were not welcome in Chechnya.

"We've been thrown away like cats in the street," the 39-year-old former teacher said at a refugee center in Tishenskoye, a village outside the southern Russian city of Stavropol.

Almost no ethnic-Russian refugees will be taking part in the Chechen elections: The Chechens have refused to set up polling booths outside the republic, and the refugees are too scared to go back to Chechnya.

Whoever wins, it will make little difference to the Russians, refugees say.

All the candidates in the election stand for Chechen independence, and the atmosphere since the last Russian troops left has become increasingly hostile for the ethnic-Russian minority.

Several Russians have been murdered in Grozny in the last few months, and any who can afford it are fleeing.

"They're just leaving and leaving," said Georgy Nikolayev, director of the federal migration service in Stavropol, which deals with refugees both from Chechnya and other war zones of the former Soviet Union.

"These elections are a joke. People openly say that Russians have no business there. Even if they came here and asked me to vote, I wouldn't," Ivanovna said in the cupboard-like room she shares with her 7-year-old son.

Asked if she would ever try to return to Grozny after the elections, Ivanovna said, "Chechens have taken over my old house. I wouldn't dare show my face."

"What good would it do for us to vote?" said Alexandrova Shepilova, 82, also living at the refugee center with about 40 other mostly elderly people. "They don't want us."

The refugees' bitterness is part of a general backlash in southern Russia against what is seen as Moscow's capitulation to the Chechen separatists and the failure to protect Russian interests.

Even before the war began in December 1994, an estimated 200,000 people left Chechnya, most of them believed to be Russians fleeing the chaos and anti-Russian violence.

Cossacks -- descendants of the original Russian colonizers of the Caucasus in the 18th and 19th centuries -- are becoming increasingly militant. In the last week they have demanded the formation of Cossack units to be backed by artillery and air power to defend southern Russia from what they say will be inevitable Chechen raids.

"The Chechens want to spread their trouble-making to the whole North Caucasus and I think they'll try," said Valentina Ivanovna, director of the Tishenskoye refugee center. "We don't think Moscow will protect us. We've lost our faith. No one is protected."