The parliament's ruling was based on the constitution enacted by the Chechen parliament on March 12, 1992, and intended to supercede the Soviet-era constitution of the Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic adopted in 1978. The 1992 constitution was amended first in November 1996, following the end of the 1994-96 war, then in February 1997 following the election of Aslan Maskhadov as president in a ballot which the international community and the Russian leadership formally recognized as free, fair, and valid. Further amendments reflecting Maskhadov's imposition in early 1999 of the Shari'a legal system were endorsed at a session of the War Council in the summer of 2002.
The 1992 constitution defines the Chechen Republic Ichkeria as "a sovereign and independent democratic state based on the rule of law and created as a result of the self-determination of the Chechen people." Article 2 describes as "a most grave crime" any attempt by any person or organization to usurp power; Article 69 of that constitution describes the president as heading the executive branch, and also says he may not simultaneously serve as a parliament deputy; Article 72 specifies the oath of office, in which the president pledges to strengthen and defend the sovereignty of the ChRI and strictly abide by its constitution and laws; Article 74 stipulates that in the event of his committing a crime, the president may be relieved of his post on the basis of a vote by no fewer than two thirds of all parliament deputies. Oddly, however, it does not specify who then assumes the presidential powers. Following the deaths of Presidents Djokhar Dudayev in April 1996, Aslan Maskhadov in March 2005, and Abdul-Khakim Saidullayev in June 2006, the vice president automatically succeeded him.
The validity of the 1992 constitution is, however, open to question, as is whether the ChRI is indeed an independent state. On April 26, 1990, the USSR Supreme Soviet enacted a law that upgraded the status of the Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics (ASSRs), of which the then-Checheno-Ingush ASSR was one, to the level of the union republics, a status that carried with it the hypothetical right the union republics enjoyed to secede from the USSR. Campaigning in Kazan four months later for the Russian presidency, Boris Yeltsin uttered his now legendary exhortation to the leaders of Russia's republics to "take as much sovereignty as you can digest!" The Tatar and Yakut ASSRs wasted no time in taking up that challenge, adopting declarations of sovereignty on 30 August and 27 September, 1990, respectively. And on November 27, 1990, the Checheno-Ingush ASSR Oblast Soviet similarly issued a declaration of "state sovereignty" that defined that republic as a sovereign state that was part of neither the Russian Federation nor the USSR. In a statement posted on the ChRI website chechenpress.com on August 17, 2004, ChRI Foreign Minister Akhmed Zakayev argued that it was that declaration, adopted "in complete accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law, and also of the laws in force at that time on the territory of the USSR," that formalized the emergence of the Checheno-Ingush Republic as a sovereign state.
The Checheno-Ingush ASSR Oblast Soviet was forcibly disbanded on September 6, 1991, in the wake of the failed putsch against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. That date is commemorated annually as a landmark on the road to true independence: in his address to the Chechen people on September 6, 2007, Umarov characterized it as "the day on which the Chechen people restored its state independence." The first presidential edict issued by Djokhar Dudayev, on November 1, 1991, reaffirmed the "state sovereignty of the Chechen Republic." At the time, Chechens greeted those developments with jubilation as incontrovertibly cementing Chechnya's separation from the USSR and its emergence as an independent state.
But as Professor Gail Lapidus pointed out in her analysis "Contested Sovereignty," the precise semantic connotations of "state sovereignty" in the Soviet and post-Soviet context, specifically whether that concept implies, or automatically entails, international recognition as an independent state, have never been clarified. Even before the demise of the USSR and the emergence of the Russian Federation as an independent state, Russian politicians tended to use the term "sovereignty" as a synonym for "real autonomy" (as opposed to the nominal autonomy granted to those republics and oblasts under the 1977 Soviet Constitution).
That limited interpretation of "sovereignty" was reaffirmed in the Federation Treaty signed on March 31, 1992, in a clear bid to prevent Russia from falling apart the same way as the USSR had done. Chechnya, however, refused to sign the Federation Treaty, and its leaders subsequently argued that Chechnya was not bound it by, nor by the Russian Constitution adopted in December 1993 which explicitly includes Chechnya in the list of federation subjects. Tatarstan, which likewise declined to sign the Federation Treaty, managed over a period of two years to negotiate its own bilateral treaty on relations with the federal government. That agreement gave Tatarstan far broader powers than other subjects of the Russian Federation, but was inexorably renegotiated after Vladimir Putin succeeded Yeltsin as Russian president in 2000.
Yusup Soslambekov, who served as chairman of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Chechen parliament elected in October 1991 but split with President Dudayev 18 months later, argued in his 1995 compilation "Chechnya (Nokhchich'o) -- vzglyad iznutri" that insofar as the sovereign Chechen Republic Ichkeria adopted its constitution prior to the signing of the Federation Treaty and the adoption of the new Russian Federation Constitution, it was not legally bound by either document.
Members of the ChRI government and parliament adduce as further proof that Russia formally recognized the ChRI as an independent state two documents signed in Moscow in May 1997. Those two documents are designated "Treaty on Peace and the Principles of Relations between the Russian Federation and the Chechen Republic Ichkeria," signed byYeltsin and Chechen President Maskhadov, and "Agreement between the Government of the Russian Federation and the Government of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria," signed by Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and by Maskhadov in his capacity as head of the Chechen government. Russia has never formally unilaterally annulled those agreements. But it could be argued that the Chechen Republic constitution adopted in a referendum in March 2003, and which affirms that "the Chechen Republic is an unalienable part of the territory of the Russian Federation," supercedes the 1992 constitution -- even though those human-rights activists who monitored the vote questioned the accuracy of the 85 percent turnout claimed by the Russian authorities.
Even if one accepts the existence of an independent ChRI, however, it could be argued that the November 6 decision by the members of its parliament currently living in exile in Europe to strip Umarov of the post of president violates the 1992 constitution. As noted above, Article 74 of that constitution allows for the ChRI president to be stripped of his powers in the event that he commits a serious crime, but also stipulates that a minimum of two-thirds of all parliament deputies must approve that move. The parliament elected under Maskhadov in 1997, the powers of which Maskhadov extended in 2002 due to the impossibility of holding free elections during time of war, comprised 63 deputies. Some, including its chairman Ruslan Alikhadjiyev, died during the war that erupted in 1999. Some remained in Chechnya and pledged loyalty to the new administration imposed by Moscow; only 10 are currently abroad, first deputy chairman Selim Beshayev told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service on November 6. Article 69, stipulating that the president may not simultaneously be a parliament deputy, is also problematic in that respect.
And the November 6 decision by the 10 parliament deputies in exile to assume temporarily the presidential powers would seem to contravene Article 71 of the 1992 constitution, which rules that the president is directly elected in a popular secret ballot, and any attempt to elect or appoint a president by any other means, or to usurp presidential power, is illegal and invalid.
While the desire to limit the damage to the cause of Chechen independence from Umarov's declaration of a North Caucasus emirate is understandable, it is not clear why the exile parliament deputies opted for a step that is dubious from the point of view of constitutional law, rather than appoint as acting president a figure with more convincing bona fides -- unless they were unable to agree on such a candidate.