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Chechnya: Russian Government Preparing For Referendum

The Russian government and pro-Moscow Chechen administration are making final preparations for the 23 March constitutional referendum in the breakaway republic. Moscow says the vote represents a key step toward a political solution in the war-ravaged region. But critics argue the referendum will only serve to legitimize Russia's brutal 3 1/2-year military campaign and offers Chechnya little in the way of true autonomy.

Moscow, 19 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- On 23 March, Chechen residents and refugees in neighboring Ingushetia will have the opportunity to vote on a new constitution that Moscow says will grant them long-sought autonomy while keeping them within the fold of the Russian Federation.

The Kremlin has billed the referendum, which will also pave the way for presidential and parliamentary elections, as the first step toward ending the region's intractable military conflict. But the draft constitution, which calls for the republic to be an "integral and inseparable" part of Russia, makes it plain that Chechnya's broad separatist aims are not part of Moscow's roadmap for peace.

In a televised address broadcast in Chechnya, Russian President Vladimir Putin appealed to Chechens to take part in the vote: "Passage of the constitution is indeed a serious milestone. It is the moment in which the Chechen people take their fate into their own hands. The future of your children and grandchildren is now in your hands -- the future of Chechnya itself."

Putin also said the constitution will give Chechen people "an opportunity to live their life independently and implement [very] wide autonomy within Russia." If passed, the referendum will pave the way for a joint Russian-Chechen agreement on the republic's status and administration of the republic.

The vote has the strong backing of Chechnya's pro-Moscow administration, which stands to gain politically from a positive outcome. But the region's popularly elected president, separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov, has denounced the referendum, saying in remarks quoted on the separatist website that Russians "are trying to force us to vote at gunpoint" and that "there can be no alternative to an independent Chechen state."

Presidential adviser Sergei Yastrzhembskii, the Kremlin's top spokesman on Chechnya, told reporters last week that life in the region is becoming "normalized." He said a successful vote in the referendum will open many possibilities for Chechnya. "A broad political process will get under way in the republic. It's completely clear that interest in the elections will slowly grow. Various political groups, alliances, and movements will probably appear that will declare their intention to run for deputies' seats [in parliamentary elections]. Of course, I think that in itself this will bring Chechnya up to those standards of public and political life according to which other regions of the Russian Federation live," Yastrzhembskii said.

But Chechen groups and rights activists say the referendum is little more than an attempt to legitimize a brutal campaign rife with human rights violations. They say Moscow lacks the moral authority to be able to enact legislation and administer justice in Chechnya, where estimated civilian casualties have mounted into the tens of thousands since the war began in 1999.

Opponents also criticize the proposed constitution for giving the federal government much more sway over Chechnya than over other regions, for example, allowing the Russian president to dismiss the Chechen leader and depriving the population of the right to appeal to international arbitration bodies.

Lev Ponomarev, head of the For Human Rights group and Moscow's leading organizer of antiwar demonstrations, this week said such a vote cannot be valid as long as the republic is still in the grip of war and enduring massive hardship. "We feel the referendum cannot be viewed as the first step toward a political solution. We feel it is an initiative meant to express a will that is not free and that is going on amid colossal pressure from the authorities, and what's more, amid the disappearance of people," Ponomarev said.

Ponomarev echoes a sentiment common among opponents of the Chechen war, saying face-to-face talks with separatists is the only way toward a real political solution. Moscow has repeatedly refused to negotiate with Chechen separatists, whom it refers to as "bandits" and "terrorists."

Ruslan Badalov chairs the Ingushetia-based Chechen National Salvation Committee. He told journalists that Chechens are not able to express their opinions freely under existing conditions in the republic. "Extrajudicial executions, disappearances, artillery bombardments, and bombing of the hill regions are still taking place on the territory of the Chechen Republic. Inhabitants of the Chechen Republic are thinking about only one thing: for this war, this nightmare, to end. They can't think about the referendum when the Russian military is committing war crimes against the civilian population of the Chechen Republic," Badalov said.

Ahead of the referendum, Russia has taken steps to cut back on its military presence in Chechnya, saying the situation in the republic is stabilizing. Moscow has closed two checkpoints in Grozny and has withdrawn at least 700 Defense and Interior Ministry troops. This represents just a fraction of Russian federal forces serving in the region. The military says 80,000 troops remain, with many reports putting the number at more than 100,000.

According to the Chechen Election Commission, some 38,000 Russian troops have the right to vote in the referendum, a condition referendum opponents have harshly criticized.

Dadash Aliyev is a Chechen lawyer living in Moscow. He said the referendum has no legal basis because the region already has a legitimate political leader in Aslan Maskhadov, who was elected as Chechnya's president in 1997 in voting recognized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. "[The political process] should begin not with a referendum but with the reinstitution of the usurped will of the people, which is the source of law and authority in this land," Aliyev said.

Akhmed-hadji, the head of Chechnya's pro-Moscow administration, says he expects more than 90 percent of the region's 537,000 potential voters, including some 65,000 refugees in Ingushetia, to participate in the referendum.

Rights groups say they fear vote results will be falsified. But Badalov says his group, for one, is not calling for Chechens to boycott the referendum because of the threat of physical violence if they do not participate. Reports last week quoted refugees in Ingushetia as saying officials also threatened to withhold food aid to anyone who refused to register to vote.

A number of CIS rights groups and observers are due to monitor the referendum. But it remains unclear if any international monitors will be present for the vote. The Council of Europe last week said it would not send observers, citing security concerns. Lord Judd, the special rapporteur on Chechnya for the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly, has said he will resign if the referendum goes ahead as scheduled on 23 March.