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Chechnya: Human Rights Watch Says Referendum A 'Strange' Idea

Moscow, 29 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Anna Neistat, the Moscow representative of Human Rights Watch, said today that holding a constitutional referendum in Chechnya while Russian soldiers account for one-sixth of the voting population there is "strange." Russian troops permanently stationed in Chechnya, estimated at between 21,000 and 23,000 soldiers, will be allowed to vote in the 23 March referendum that is set to approve a new constitution.

Neistat also said it is strange that Russia is "currently closing the door to international observers." Russia closed down the Chechen office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on 31 December, effectively putting an end to all international observation in the breakaway republic.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said yesterday that Russia will consider welcoming OSCE members into Chechnya to observe the constitutional referendum, which is due to be followed by presidential and legislative polls.

Human rights groups have widely criticized holding a poll while clashes continue between federal troops and Chechen rebels.