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Russia: Moscow Sets Date For Chechen Referendum, But Its Legitimacy Under Question

  • Valentinas Mite

Russia plans to hold a referendum on a Chechen constitution on 23 March. The Russian authorities hope the move will give some stability to the republic and solidify its place in the Russian Federation. But the situation in Chechnya remains turbulent, and analysts say the possibilities for manipulation of the referendum results are enormous.

Prague, 15 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Russian officials have set 23 March as the date for the breakaway republic of Chechnya to vote in a referendum on a constitution that strengthens ties with Moscow. The vote is a forerunner to eventual elections of a Chechen president and parliament. The Kremlin announced that presidential elections are likely to be held in Chechnya in November or December.

Russian authorities and the pro-Moscow administration in Grozny hope these moves will give the republic some stability and order and solidify its place in the Russian Federation. They also want to show the West that the situation in the republic is almost normal, despite constant clashes between armed separatist militants and Russian troops.

The decision comes less than a month after suicide bombers blew up the pro-Moscow government headquarters in the Chechen capital, Grozny, killing 83 people.

The head of the Russian Central Election Commission, Aleksandr Veshnyakov, recently announced that some 530,000 Chechen residents and 38,000 federal troops permanently stationed in Chechnya will be eligible to vote. He said everything possible will be done to create the conditions for a free and democratic vote. He said voting will be allowed only inside Chechnya.

Many analysts question the legitimacy and motivation for the referendum, however, and believe other steps should be taken to stop the war.

Bobo Lo is an associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. He told RFE/RL that the move is an effort to provide legitimacy to the pro-Russian administration in Chechnya and to give some legal basis for the war that Russian forces are waging in the republic. But Lo said neither the West, nor the Chechens themselves, believe the vote will succeed in accomplishing these objectives. "I would say, no. Certainly, the West will not believe it. The Chechens will not believe it. The Chechen people will not believe it, and I would be very surprised if very many people in Moscow would believe it, as well. So, while one can understand the motivation of the Russian government in carrying out such a referendum, I actually don't believe it will succeed in its basic objective of legitimizing both the administration and a sort of the Russian presence in Chechnya," Lo said.

Aleksei Malashenko, a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, agrees and said the situation in the republic is so dire that Russia does not need to manipulate the results to get what it wants. "This manipulation is not needed. The fact that the referendum is organized during the real war speaks for itself and is manipulation in itself. It is hard to imagine free voting during a war, and such a war is under way now. It continues even during winter. Anyway, this referendum will not be legal because of the fact that it is not known in what territory it will take place and how many people may take part in it," he said.

Malashenko said it is unclear how many refugees may return to the war-ravaged republic to vote and if Russian soldiers will be ordered to vote to influence the results. Malashenko said no one even knows exactly how many people are living in the republic. "You can get an answer to this question only from Allah. It is really the most difficult question, and I doubt that even Allah can answer it for you. According to the most frequently used [unofficial] Russian data, there are approximately 350,000 Chechens in Chechnya [compared with 530,000 officially]," Malashenko said.

Fifty percent of Chechen residents must approve the constitution in the referendum for it to be adopted.

Ruslan Badalov is chairman of the nongovernmental Committee of National Salvation, which is working to support Chechen refugees in Ingushetia. He told RFE/RL that, according to official data, there are some 70,000 refugees from Chechnya in Ingushetia. According to figures compiled by his organization, however, that figure is closer to 150,000.

He said that during the Russian Duma elections in December, only 1 percent of refugees returned to Chechnya to vote. He says it is unlikely any more than that will decide to participate in the constitutional referendum.

Badalov said Russian soldiers in the republic may be used to help fill in any lapses in voter turnout. "If [the Russian authorities] need 100,000 soldiers to vote, they will have 100,000 ready to do the job. They will have the figure which will suite them best. This figure will be presented officially because nobody controls [Russian forces in Chechnya]," he said.

Lo from the Royal Institute of International Affairs said a new constitution and newly elected government in Chechnya will be unlikely to lower the influence of the Russian military in the republic. "The trouble is, I think, it's possible it could have marginally less influence, but its influence is so, so great at the moment in Chechnya that a little less influence in a very, very big presence isn't actually going to make much difference. The influence of the military in Chechnya will continue to be very great," he said.

Malashenko said he is confident the new constitution will be approved but says the voting will not improve the situation in Chechnya. "Of course, they will adopt the constitution. Why they should fail? In such circumstances, you can adopt everything you want -- the Belgian Constitution, the French Constitution, or the libretto of 'Swan Lake' as [the constitution of Chechnya]. It is not question of principle. The principle problem is to stop military activities," he said. He said what Chechnya needs is not a new constitution but a consensus for peace.

Human Rights Watch, the U.S.-based human rights body, yesterday described Russia's war in Chechnya as Europe's most intense human right crisis, citing arbitrary detentions, the disappearance of civilians, sexual abuse at the hands of troops, and the closure of refugee camps.

Human Rights Watch also harshly criticizes NATO for forging closer ties with Moscow, accusing the military alliance and other international groups of turning a blind eye to what it called the "continuing atrocities" committed by Russia in the breakaway republic.

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