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Russia: Plans For Referendum In Chechnya May Be Hollow Gesture

Russia has announced plans to hold a referendum in Chechnya on a new constitution. The referendum would be preceded by an international conference, but it's not yet clear who would be invited. Pro-Moscow Chechens say a referendum and new constitution is the quickest road to peace. Analysts, on the other hand, say that without the active involvement of Chechen separatists, any vote is likely to be meaningless.

Prague, 26 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Russian minister for Chechnya, Stanislav Ilyasov, has announced plans to hold a constitutional referendum in the breakaway republic sometime in March.

Speaking on 22 November, Ilyasov said the Kremlin had approved a plan for a Chechen constitution that provides for the establishment of a republic and a one-chamber parliament.

The idea for the referendum was proposed by pro-Moscow Chechens on 7 November. In an appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin, they said the main problem facing Chechnya was the lack of a constitution and urged the Kremlin to organize a referendum as soon as possible.

Aslambek Aslakhanov, a deputy in the State Duma representing Chechnya, signed the appeal. He said a referendum and constitution is the quickest way to end the bloodshed. "Every day, people are killed [in Chechnya]. Every day, young people die, and every day, people are abducted and shot and their corpses found. It is impossible to wait any longer for negotiations to start. Something must be done," Aslakhanov said.

Aslakhanov said an international conference on Chechnya would precede the referendum, but it's not yet clear who would attend the conference. Aslakhanov said the Chechen opposition should be invited but not those now fighting Russian forces. "During the last week, I spoke about this problem with some Kremlin officials, and they told me that those Chechens who are not wanted by Russian authorities would be allowed to take part in the conference," Aslakhanov said.

The question remains, however, how effective such a conference would be, since almost all of the Chechen separatist leaders, including Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, are wanted by Russian authorities.

Putin has described Maskhadov as a "murderer" and "scum," and just two weeks ago blamed Maskhadov for almost all of the breakaway republic's troubles. "[Maskhadov] led the republic to economic collapse, famine, destruction of the social and cultural sphere, genocide against other ethnic groups in Chechnya, and heavy casualties of ethnic Chechens," Putin said.

Ivan Rybkin, a Russian Duma deputy and former chairman of parliament, is skeptical about the success of the referendum. He said any vote held without the inclusion of the separatist leadership is not likely to succeed. "These people who are resisting 100,000 federal troops must take part [in the negotiations]. Federal troops are there not against [Duma Deputy Ruslan] Khasbulatov, who is an academic and professor, [and] not against Aslakhanov, who is general and a member of the Russian Duma," Rybkin said.

Brussels-based Russia analyst Marius Vahl of the Center for European Policy Studies agreed, saying that in his opinion, Chechnya is not yet ready for a referendum or elections. He said the separatists would not stop fighting just because the Russians decided to have a referendum.

Vahl said he thinks Russia is probably using the idea of a referendum as a way of showing the West that it seeks a peaceful solution for Chechnya. But a referendum alone is not likely to be very persuasive. "I think so. I mean the view in the West is very clear: You need to have a political solution, a political settlement that will have to be negotiated between the ones who are fighting. Simply holding elections in Russian-controlled parts of Chechnya -- I don't think that will make any difference on opinion in the West," Vahl said.

Dov Lynch, an analyst from the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris, is also critical about a referendum. "This referendum is still far from falling in line [with a] policy of peace and [the] search for peace. It really falls in line with the current Russian policy of isolating, eliminating, destroying separatists, terrorists, whatever they want to call them, and is not really a step toward peace," Lynch said.

Lynch said Russian authorities will hail the referendum as a step toward peace, but in reality, he said, it would be more a "Potemkin village."

Analysts say any vote would be heavily weighted in Russia's favor. Separatists would not likely vote, but the 100,000 Russian soldiers now deployed in Chechnya probably would.