Early results from a 23 March referendum in war-ravaged Chechnya show that voters overwhelmingly approved a new constitution for the region. Moscow hopes the document, which declares Chechnya an "inseparable part" of Russia, will serve as the foundation for peace following the region's 3 1/2-year conflict. But rebels and rights defenders say the referendum is irrelevant for most Chechens and that the war will drag on.
Moscow, 24 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Referendum voters in Chechnya and nearby regions yesterday overwhelmingly approved the passage of a new constitution that subordinates the war-ravaged republic to Moscow.
Officials are billing the results as a key step toward a peaceful solution to the Kremlin's 3 1/2-year war against separatist rebels. But Chechen fighters and rights defenders say the vote is only a way of prolonging what they say is an unjust conflict.
Chechnya's Moscow-appointed administration today said preliminary results indicated that 96 percent of those taking part voted in favor of the Kremlin-backed constitution. With the ballots of 61 percent of eligible voters counted, that assures the document's passage into law.
Speaking today in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed the referendum results, saying they resolved the "last serious problem facing the territorial integrity of Russia." "The results of this referendum are positive," he said. "They were expected to be positive, but the figures have even surpassed our most optimistic expectations. That means that the people of Chechnya have made their choice for peace and development together with Russia."
Anatolii Popov, Chechnya's Moscow-appointed prime minister, likewise hailed the results in remarks broadcast on Russian television. "The referendum can be considered as having taken place, that is, as of today, the republic is functioning under the approved constitution. Now, in front of us all -- the government, the administration, the people -- stands a great amount of work on the future creation of stability that will provide the basis for normal life," Popov said.
Officials say 537,000 voters were eligible to take part in the referendum, including some 65,000 refugees in the neighboring region of Ingushetia. Around 38,000 Russian military personnel stationed in Chechnya were also allowed to vote. The regional election commission reported a total turnout of over 80 percent.
In addition to the constitution, voters were asked to vote on proceeding with elections in the region. Results so far show 95 percent approval for presidential elections in six months and 96 percent approval for parliamentary elections later in the year.
Popov said there were no complaints about how the referendum was carried out and that no fighting or other incidents disrupted procedures. Russian media reported rebel attacks on some polling stations.
Separatist rebels (on the kavkazcenter.com website) called the referendum a "political farce" in which most Chechens had actually refused to participate.
Chechen groups and human rights defenders in Russia and abroad have criticized the referendum as an attempt to legitimize a brutal campaign rife with human rights violations.
They say talks with separatists are the only way toward a real political solution -- a position Moscow resolutely refuses.
Ruslan Badalov, head of the Chechen National Salvation Committee, spoke to RFE/RL from Ingushetia. He said that based on the organization's monitoring in Ingushetia, as well as information from sources in Grozny and media reports, the results of the referendum appear to have been falsified. "The city of Grozny was essentially dead," he said. "In short, the turnout was practically miserly. In the hill regions, of course, those who voted were mostly military personnel, as was expected and we predicted. About the attempts to show that in some settlements, such as Shatoi, 98 percent [voted] -- most of the population has been pushed out of there. 'Zachistki' [mopping-up operations] and bombing are always going on. Of course, that 98 percent was clearly provided by the military."
Badalov said the referendum cannot be considered legitimate because Chechens are not able to freely express their opinions under conditions of war. He said many were coerced into taking part.
Critics also say the referendum has no legal basis because separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov remains the region's only legitimate political leader. Maskhadov was elected Chechen president in 1997 in voting recognized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Badalov said he does not expect the situation in Chechnya to change following the referendum. "War on the territory of the Chechen Republic will continue," he said. "On the one hand, the separatist forces will conduct their partisan war -- bomb explosions, attacks. Parallel to that, it reflects on the civilian population -- zachistki, checkpoints, soldiers under every bush. All that will not decrease and no one's planning on it. That's why the situation is at a dead end."
Rights defenders have criticized the proposed constitution itself for giving the federal government more sway over Chechnya than over other regions, allowing the Russian president to sack the Chechen leader and depriving the population of the right to appeal to international arbitration bodies.
Moscow launched its first campaign in Chechnya in 1994 to bring the secessionist region under control. Russian forces took the capital Grozny at great cost but were dislodged in 1996, after which the Kremlin signed a peace settlement giving the region de facto independence.
Putin, prime minister at the time, launched the second conflict in 1999 after Chechen rebels staged incursions into the neighboring Russian region of Daghestan. A series of apartment-building bombings in Russia that killed around 300 people were also blamed on Chechens despite a lack of convincing proof.
Russian military forces currently suffer daily losses from mines, ambushes, and skirmishes with rebels.
Official figures vary markedly, but a government-backed brochure released this month puts the number of Russians killed in the conflict at 3,770 through March of this year. Human rights groups say that number is far too low.
Meanwhile, the military claims to have killed 14,000 Chechen rebels. There are no figures for the number of civilians killed, but some observers put the number in the tens of thousands.
Hrair Balain, an OSCE official observing the vote, was quoted by news agencies as saying that "the constitution is less than perfect. But if it is the start of a political process, then it may be a success."