Accessibility links

(Un)Civil Societies Report: March 26, 2003

26 March 2003, Volume 4, Number 6

RFE/RL has launched a new website providing breaking news and in-depth analysis on the situation in Iraq. Place a bookmark at:
UNCONVINCING CHECHEN REFERENDUM. The English statesman John, Viscount Morley, Britain's secretary to Ireland and India, was famous for having said, "You have not converted a man because you have silenced him." If he were alive today, he might find that a good way to silence dissent is to hold a seemingly convincing public referendum. With the vote on the new constitution in Chechnya this week, Chechen citizens were given an opportunity to say what they think. Yet questions linger about the manner in which the referendum was conducted, the legitimacy of its results, and its real impact on ending the conflict, despite a reported 96 percent vote in favor and more than 80 percent turnout.

While Chechens who did turn out seemed to articulate their desire for peace rather than war (not surprisingly), what had been silent for months before the referendum is their television sets. Many families in the war-torn republic do not have them, and what coverage they have received, from local or national news, could not be said to constitute a serious, open debate of the issues of Chechnya's future. Even at public voters' meetings, Russian officials followed a long-established Soviet tradition of repressing public opinion even as it is ostensibly sought by filming attendees, and activists who went on a hunger strike or staged other nonviolent actions to protest the referendum were detained to dampen their influence.

Public referenda have a long and discredited history in the post-Soviet region. More often than not, they have been manipulated by authoritarian governments eager to stay in power both to paper over civil strife or feign massive support in the face of significant challenges. Experience has shown that if a referendum is quickly organized, is made complicated, deals with multiple questions, and phrases them in a certain way, almost any results needed by a government in power can be obtained. In most democracies, referenda are usually held on far narrower issues than a constitution or social system itself, and other checks and balances such as a free media and robust political party life exist to put them in context. Post-Soviet leaders have made a specialty of packing as many complex legal and political issues into plebiscites in their restricted societies, so that even if free and fair conditions prevail -- and they often do not -- the results can be misleading.

In March 1991, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev staged a referendum in which 75-80 percent of the population took part, of whom 75 percent voted seemingly in favor of keeping the Soviet Union together. Rather than being asked directly if they wished to preserve the USSR as such, the question was worded as follows, "Do you consider it necessary to preserve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal, sovereign states-republics in which the rights and freedoms of persons of all nationalities will be fully guaranteed?" Feeling that this offer might be as good as it gets, and concentrating on the words "renewed" and "rights and freedoms" which they were hearing for the first time, many Soviet citizens voted "yes." The three Baltic nations, Armenia, Moldova, and Georgia did not participate. Gorbachev recalls in his memoirs how Russian leader Boris Yeltsin, speaking on Radio Rossiya about the first draft of the new union treaty, said: "The referendum is being held in order to win support for the current policies of the leadership of the country. Its aim is to preserve the imperial unitary essence of the union and the system." By December 1991, Gorbachev had resigned and the union was dissolved.

In Belarus in 1996, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka engineered a referendum to extend his term under a new version of the constitution, ultimately disbanding the constitutional court and the parliament. The turnout was 64.7 percent of the population, 75 percent of whom voted "yes." Not to be outdone, Azerbaijan's Heidar Aliyev turned out 96 percent of the voters in 2002 for a bewildering array of constitutional amendments that somehow found 88 percent approval. In Kyrgyzstan in 2003, in the fourth constitutional referendum since independence in 1991, President Askar Akaev was also able to claim 75 percent in favor of changing the constitution and 79 percent advocating that he stay in office until 2005. In each of these cases, the perception that the government was acting in bad faith and eroding the public trust by manipulating polls only served to enrage and enlarge the opposition beyond those who had originally dared to vote "no."

Yeltsin, who launched the 1994-96 war in Chechnya, would never apply his reasoning about the Soviet Union's republics to the Russian Federation's constituent parts. The extent of resistance in Chechnya nonetheless compelled his successor, President Vladimir Putin, to make an unusual televised speech on the eve of the referendum on 16 March, hinting at further autonomy for Chechnya down the road, and even seeming to concede that Chechens had lived too long in fear of the knock at the door in the middle of the night from Russian troops. Later, in a meeting with religious readers, he even conceded that "mistakes had been made" even at the federal level.

Before the vote, Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen officials flip-flopped on whether displaced Chechens in Ingushetia would be allowed to vote at all in their camps, or be bussed to border towns to cast their vote, and finally some were delivered to polls. Migration officials said rebels were intimidating refugees from voting, Interfax reported on 27 February. Refugees themselves told reporters that officials were threatening to close their tent camps in Ingushetia and cut off their services if they did not participate in the vote, AP reported on 12 March. In the end, at least 65,000 displaced persons were said to have voted.

Local human rights groups and some European officials marveled at the Kremlin's decision to allow 38,000 Russian troops -- far from their home towns in the heartland of Russia -- to vote in the referendum, out of 80,000 troops overall who remain in the region, some of whom guarded polling stations. Yet there was the even more curious matter of the Russian census in Chechnya in October 2002, which seemed to turn up far more Chechens than anyone believed to have existed, prompting some observers to wonder if the numbers were cooked. As part of the federal effort, census takers working for just two days in Chechnya (they cited security concerns) collected more than a million questionnaires. The phenomena was explained away by the pro-Moscow government as resulting from fewer war casualties than human rights groups claimed, and new births even in wartime. After subtracting Russian soldiers, it was unclear where the "extra" Chechens had come from, although some in the Chechen diaspora in other parts of Russia returned to vote. The last census held in Chechnya in 1989, had 1.27 million residents, but in Chechnya and Ingushetia combined.

Expectations that large numbers of Chechens would boycott the referendum appeared to be misplaced, although some mothers whose children had disappeared in Russian military sweeps demonstrated in a main square of Grozny, telling RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service that they would only go to the referendum if the authorities returned the young people.

Russian officials persuaded reluctant international organizations to come to the region, despite their security concerns, to witness the event. Conditions for voting were "less than perfect," conceded these observers, but they were inclined to celebrate any show of reconciliation from the Kremlin in an effort to stop the war. A reporter from the "Chicago Tribune" saw only handfuls of people voting in districts where much greater participation was claimed, and a "Le Figaro" journalist was able to vote himself when he showed his French passport. Citing "Prague Watchdog" and journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the Jamestown Foundation's "Chechnya Weekly" reported this week that local officials were either doling out benefits on the eve of the referendum, especially for children and the elderly, or intimidating people at voters' meetings by filming them. A form of silent protest leading up to the ballot was the persistent tearing down of many posters promoting the referendum.

Memorial Society Human Rights Center polled 665 people in 17 regions, many of them teachers at the time of the referendum. Seventy-eight percent said they didn't believe proper conditions for a referendum existed; 43 percent said that without monitoring, it was hard to trust the results. Perhaps most tellingly, 76 percent of those polled by Memorial said in any event that Russian authorities would not obey the new constitution for which they had so carefully obtained a consensus, 7 percent said it would only be "selectively" enforced, 3 percent said it would be, and 15 percent were undecided, providing a microcosm of the difficulties in building convincing consensus in the future.

ELECTION PROTESTORS SENTENCED. Over the past four weeks since a contested presidential election, Armenian courts have sentenced more than 100 participants in demonstrations to protest election fraud to short terms of imprisonment under a Soviet-era provision of the Criminal Code that enables authorities to arrest and jail for short terms persons accused of disrupting public order at rallies. In a written statement, a copy of which was made available to RFE/RL, the Armenian Justice Ministry said the authorities will not comply with a request from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) to abolish the provision, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported on 24 March. Justice Ministry official Nikolai Arustamian argued that only the Council of Europe's Council of Ministers, but not PACE, is empowered to make such a request (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 March 2003) and it is unlikely it will be made at a ministerial level.

One of the detainees is Arthur Sakunts, coordinator of the Vanadzor office of the Helsinki Citizens' Assembly (see, arrested on 15 March and tried behind closed doors for organizing a meeting in front of his office to discuss his organization's findings in the recent elections as well as the fire in his office set by unknown persons the previous day, the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development ( in Tbilisi reported by e-mail on 17 March. Sakunts is described by activists in the region as a well-known human rights advocate and peace activist, publisher of an independent newspaper, "Civic Initiative," who has been active in Transcaucasian dialogue to end conflict. He was sentenced to 10 days, which he served in full.

The attack on his office was the second since elections characterized as fraudulent by the opposition sparked mass unrest. He and his supporters vow to contest the failure of local authorities to grant them a permit for a legitimate assembly, as well as his arrest under the Soviet-era offense, which they say should be abolished. Commenting on his jail sentence on the day he was released, Sakunts said in a statement published on his website, that "authorities are afraid of free speeches of the citizens. They are also afraid of freedom. That is why they oppress freedom."

A TRICKLE OF REFUGEES AS RELIEF GROUPS BRACE FOR A FLOOD... Since the U.S.-led bombing of Iraq began, relief organizations have been bracing themselves for an influx of refugees to neighboring countries, as the UN estimates as many as 1.45 million people are likely to flee the war. So far this week, however, the UN says that its agencies had seen "no substantial movements" across Iraq's borders into Turkey and Iran, CNN and other Western news agencies reported, although there is considerable movement inside the country and the situation could change rapidly. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said more than 22,000 Iraqis have moved to Nowsud, close to the Iranian border province of Kurdistan. Iranian authorities had evidently not yet agreed to open the border. Some 100 third-country nationals are on the Iraqi side of the Iraq-Iran crossing at Khosravi in Kermanshah Province and still do not have permission from Iraqi authorities to leave Iraq. The UN is preparing refugee sites in western Iran, receiving supplies from Russia, reported on 24 March, citing official statements.

Despite reports, Iraqis have not yet approached the frontier with Turkey, although the UNHCR is stockpiling tents, bedding, plastic sheeting, lanterns, and jerry cans, expecting that they will come. As they did in Afghanistan, where the UN pleaded for months to get Uzbekistan to open up the Friendship Bridge to refugees crossing from Afghanistan, the UNHCR is urging Iraq's neighbors to open their borders to absorb the flow. Thousands of people are said to have already crossed borders into Syria and Jordan, but not all may be refugees; rather, they are moving on to their homes in these countries or elsewhere in the region such as Egypt.

UNICEF, the UN Children's Fund, issued an urgent call for fixing the water-treatment plants destroyed in bombing in Basra, where an uprising is under way. They say disease threatens especially children as tens of thousands of people try to get water from the river, which is also where sewage is dumped.

From the onset of war, the expectation was that Iraqis would move in large numbers. So far, the flood has failed to materialize. "Neither the ferocious bombardment of Baghdad nor fierce fighting in southern Iraq has yet frightened Iraqis into fleeing their homes," "The Christian Science Monitor" reported on 25 March, although officials are braced for an influx, based especially on the past Gulf War's experience where 2 million fled, half of them to Jordan. Most Iraqis are believed to have food stockpiles of only six weeks, UN officials say.

The capture of the port of Umm Qasr last week by U.S. Marines is expected to provide international aid agencies a gateway into Iraq from the Persian Gulf, and the World Food Program (WFP) has gathered 32,000 tons of food in neighboring countries, but that would be enough for only 2 million people for a month, "The Christian Science Monitor" reported, citing a WFP official.

The British and U.S. military are planning for a "worst-case scenario" of 2 million civilians being displaced by the war, CNN reported. Refugee experts in the U.S. agree with the UNHCR's contingency planning figure of 600,000 refugees leaving the country, but say as many as 3 million could be displaced internally, given that so many were already forced from their homes long before the war.

Groups such as Doctors Without Borders, which has a team of six on the ground in Baghdad with a convoy headed their way, refrain from speculating about the numbers but just attempt to care for those with who turn to them. Military authorities have already loaded 200,000 food packs on to U.S. vehicles in Kuwait and 30,000 onto British trucks, CNN reported, but military and nonmilitary groups are expected to disagree about the extent to which the military should be involved in humanitarian work.

Divided Security Council members were also haggling over restarting the UN oil-for-food program, Reuters reported on 25 March. Russia, France, China, and Syria, opponents of the war, were reluctant to have the UN coordinate efforts with U.S. and British troops and thus legitimize the military action in their eyes. Although Russia does not usually speak out about refugee crises around the world, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who has already called the war "illegal" and is dismayed that it began at all, lectured the U.S. on the need to keep focused on the potential humanitarian crisis in Iraq.

All refugee officials have continued to cite the figure given by the Iraqi government, but in part independently verified by relief workers, that 60 percent of the country's 25 million people will have to be cared for in the war by outsiders if they are to survive. This makes an assumption that the centralized food distribution run by the oppressive government of Iraq will simply be taken over by some outside force, but it is not yet clear if it might be run more efficiently, or less punitively and selectively.

The current needs assessments seem to make no allowances for a certain amount of informal and entrepreneurial activity or outright war profiteering that could take place by Iraqis and foreigners themselves, especially if the borders to neighboring countries are opened and people begin to flow in and out. A "New Yorker" reporter who remained in Baghdad as the coalition's bombs began to fall and published his dispatch in this week's issue said Iraqis were appearing at crossroads in Baghdad selling jerry cans and food from the WFP. Before the cruise missiles began landing, a 10-hour ride out of Baghdad to Amman was $200. The price leaped to $500 by noon of the day after President George W. Bush's ultimatum to Saddam. After the bombs began falling, the price skyrocketed to $1,300.

...WHILE DISPLACED PERSONS HAVE ALREADY BEEN SUFFERING... All experts agree that after 12 years of sanctions and two wars in Iraq, the population is weakened, with insufficient infrastructure to support basic services like electricity, clean water, and hospitals, and many dislocated from their historical homes. Because the society is a closed one, getting accurate reporting about real conditions has always been a problem. As in other crises around the world, UN officials who provide statistics must get their information from the host government, or face threats to their very presence in the country.

John Fawcett and Victor Tanner are two researchers who issued an independent report on humanitarian conditions in Iraq through the Brooking Institution, "The Internally Displaced People of Iraq," in October 2002 (see, based on information from nongovernmental organizations, their own visits to Iraq, and informal interviews with UN officials. While most UN agencies and NGOs speak in general terms of "the effect of the sanctions" as the main reason for the population's suffering, these researchers explicitly place the responsibility for large numbers of displaced people before 2003 squarely on Saddam Hussein and his ruling Ba'ath Party.

Even before the current war began, an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 in the north and up to 300,000 in the center and south of Iraq were displaced, they say, because expulsions of people from their homes has "long been state policy," and "over the last 30 years, there has never been a time when one group or another was not being expelled." The displaced include Kurds, Marsh Arabs, Turkomans, and Assyrians and also Shia political opposition in the south.

The methods used against them ranged from the deployment of weapons of mass destruction, such as the chemical gassing of the Kurds, to more bureaucratic processes "where the regime wished to retain physical infrastructure and merely change the identity of the inhabitants," say the authors. These include restricting land ownership, and barring employment and access to services, as well as the use of large-scale construction projects such as the draining of the southern marshes, where there are some of the world's largest untapped oil fields, to force population movement, say the authors. A registration system similar to the Soviet propiska or residence permit is in place and has been required to get the rations; it has been a tool of repression in the hands of the Iraqi government.

To be sure, UN officials have been prevented by the Iraqi government from taking a closer look at the sensitive issue of those internally displaced by the government's own secretive policies, but of 30 UN personnel interviewed by the authors, "none were prepared to speak openly" about the issue of the displaced and their suffering because they risked expulsion and complained of intimidation by the Iraqi government. Now, in evaluating the humanitarian impact of the current war, relief officials will have to take into account pre-existing displaced, who in some cases will improve their lot if they can return home from areas they were once expelled from, but who in other cases will further displace others who took their abandoned homes.

Similar to points made by those who have studied the Balkans closely, Fawcett and Tanner say that while there have been centuries of ethnic or religious conflict, "it is not so much hatred of 'the other' that has driven the brutal repression of the past few decades as much as the regime's political and economic calculations." Even with a regime change, the issues of water, land, oil, and minority and majority rights will remain to challenge postwar rulers, they say.

Among recommendations the authors made before the war and one which planners will no doubt have to revisit as combat ceases, is to make a "dramatic decrease in the amount of grain imported under the oil-for-food program, to end general distribution in favor of targeted distribution to vulnerable groups" like elderly and children, in order to re-establish trading relationships between northern growers and southern consumers both to put people back to work, help them feed the population, and provide "a practical incentive to maintaining a unified Iraq," say the authors. The breadbasket of Iraq is in the north, and with farmland near Kirkuk, and many farmers among the displaced, there is hope that Iraqis may one day begin to sustain themselves.

...AND BODY COUNTS ARE THE FIRST CASUALTY OF WAR. The Iraq Body Count (IBC) project (, which began their count in January 2003, already reports a minimum of 199 and maximum of 278 civilian dead on accounts of Western as well as regional news services.

The group's researchers are all associated with so-called "progressive" educational institutions, nongovernmental organizations, and publications like "Counterpunch" on the left. They say many parties in the conflict will have an interest in manipulating casualty figures for political ends, although their own group has been charged with bias as well. One of the researchers, Marc Herold, a professor of economics and women's studies at the University of New Hampshire, claimed that 3,700-4,000 Afghan civilians died after the U.S. began fighting in Afghanistan in October 2002, a number seized upon by those who wanted to try to show that the U.S. killed more civilians in Afghanistan than Osama bin Laden killed in New York. Herold's work was criticized by conservative "U.S. News and World Report" columnist John Leo on 23 March, who cited analysts who had found Herold's methods questionable because they relied on "deliberately inflated Taliban accounts." Leo says the "Los Angeles Times," the Project for Defense Alternatives, and Reuters have all put the figures of civilians killed in Afghanistan considerably below Herold's at 1,067-1,201, 1,000-3,000, and 1,000, respectively.

The IBC has tried to fend off critics and gain credibility in its current effort by only reporting deaths from military weapons, refraining from reporting "indirectly caused" civilians deaths, a subject of enormous controversy on the left and right, as pro- and anti-war activists as well as those debating sanctions have sought to minimize or maximize deaths due to such factors as lack of infrastructure, disease, and environmental damage, or claims of toxicity from "depleted uranium" -- charges the Pentagon has recently gone to great lengths to disprove by providing extensive press briefings showing medical patients it has tracked with depleted uranium still in their bodies, reporting no adverse effects. The IBC news source list contains mainstream Western news agencies as well as the Arab satellite television network Al-Jazeera. For the most part, U.S. news agencies have focused on keeping the tally of U.S. and allied servicemen killed in the war and have not published running totals of Iraq's civilian casualties.

INTERNATIONAL. The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, drafted in 1990, went into force on 14 March, with the deposit of the 20th instrument of ratification. Contracting states include Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Tajikistan.

REGIONAL. Even by the turbulent standards of the former Soviet Union, the Meskhetian Turks' story is a tragic one. Twice deported in the past 60 years, they are now scattered across the length and breadth of the CIS. A repatriation plan is currently facing opposition in Georgia. Divisions within the Meskhetian community itself also are impeding efforts to promote their return.

IRAQ/RUSSIA. Created especially to cover the war in Iraq by participants of the Military Historical Forum-2 at, is enormously popular in Russia and has drawn more attention as its owners claim U.S.-based hackers have tried to destroy it (it appears to be working fine to date). The Russian-language site contains numerous polls and opinion pieces from Russian analysts and readers about the war, as well as reprints of Russian-language sources on Iraq such as Readers may want to compare how the same stories are covered elsewhere. For example, runs a headline, "What U.S. War Planners Are Preparing for Next," with commentary from General Wesley Clark, CNN military analyst; whereas runs a BBC story in Russian translation with the same General Wesley Clark with the headline, "General Clark Criticizes the Iraq Campaign" for the failure to send enough ground troops.

RUSSIA. Amnesty International urged the Russian authorities to crack down on racially motivated attacks and racial intolerance and to change discriminatory registration regulations for foreigners. Despite positive statements from President Putin and the Prosecutor-General's Office in response to an increase in racial intolerance, the problem should be made a priority before it grows out of proportion.