New Chechen Leader Faces Daunting Task
But for all the stunning success of the guerrilla campaign he led to throw the Russian army out of Chechnya, the political, diplomatic and economic task facing the soft-spoken former Soviet artillery colonel is a daunting one.
"We determined in 1991 that Chechnya was an independent state," Maskhadov, 45, told a news conference marking a sweeping victory which he expects to be confirmed on Wednesday.
"All that remains is for other countries, including Russia, to recognise that. This can be achieved by political means," he said, calling on Moscow to ignore a five-year moratorium agreed in last year's peace deal and start negotiating sovereignty now.
But as he spoke in the devastated Chechen capital Grozny, 1,200 miles to the north in Moscow, President Boris Yeltsin's press secretary was repeating Russia's refusal to countenance Chechen secession.
Yeltsin, struggling to recover after heart surgery and most recently pneumonia, met Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin at the Kremlin on Tuesday to discuss Chechnya.
Press Secretary Sergei Yastrzhembsky told a news briefing that in Yeltsin's eyes initial poll returns gave a good chance for further peace talks.
But he made clear that Moscow viewed Chechnya as part of the Russian Federation rather than as an independent state.
"The result (of future negotiations) will be the mutually acceptable resolution of all questions defining the status of the Chechen republic within the Russian Federation," said Yastrzhembsky.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which sent observers to the Chechen elections, gave its seal of approval to the polls on Tuesday.
"There were no serious infringements with effect on the overall results and in particular there were no indications of distortions," Tim Guldimann, head of the OSCE mission in Chechnya, told a news conference in Grozny.
As the chief Chechen negotiator of the peace deal, Maskhadov is seen as more open to compromise than Shamil Basayev, who is wanted for "terrorism" in Russia.
Unofficial early poll results put Basayev in second place with about 30 percent of the vote to Maskhadov's 58 percent. Officials have since imposed a news blackout until the count is over. They may hold a news conference on Wednesday afternoon.
Russia also believes it still holds many strong cards, and may, in many ways, be in a better bargaining position now it has pulled its troops out of the unwinnable war on Chechnya's soil.
As Maskhadov himself admitted on Tuesday: "Our economic situation is woeful...nearly everything has been destroyed."
The silver-haired commander demanded reparations from Russia and said he plans to negotiate a share of revenues from lucrative Russian oil pipelines that cross Chechen territory.
The diversion of oil by Chechnya's post-Soviet separatist leadership was an important factor in Yeltsin's decision to send in troops against them in December 1994.
Moscow has promised cash for reconstruction after the elections and one of its main negotiators, businessman and deputy Security Council secretary Boris Berezovsky has been playing the "oil card" heavily, offering a share of profits to persuade the Chechens they are better off inside Russia.
Surrounded on three sides by the Russian Federation and with its back to the soaring Caucasus mountains, landlocked Chechnya under Maskhadov wants to turn abroad for recognition.
But the tiny nation of one million may find it hard to win real support, even in the Muslim world, in view of Russia's threat to retaliate by severing ties with any country that acknowledges Chechen sovereignty.
For all their muted criticism of Moscow's heavy handed military tactics against the Chechens, western governments will have no interest in seeing Russia start to fray at the seams.
2:11 AM EST
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