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Chechnya: Referendum Offers Little In Way Of True Independence

Sunday's (23 March) referendum in Chechnya will ask voters to approve a new draft constitution and pave the way for presidential and parliamentary elections. If the referendum is successful, Moscow will move forward with plans for a federal treaty establishing Chechnya's administration and status within the Russian Federation. The Kremlin is calling the referendum an opportunity for Chechnya to secure broad control over its affairs. But as RFE/RL reports, analysts say the republic will be far from independent.

Prague, 19 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Observers say Moscow's blueprint for change in Chechnya -- beginning with this weekend's referendum and ending with a new government and a federal treaty with Russia -- may be a fresh start in Russian-Chechen relations.

Nikolai Petrov is a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center. He told RFE/RL that Moscow expects its agenda for Chechnya to succeed with no major setbacks. "It has been announced several times that immediately after the referendum -- the [Kremlin] has no doubts about the success of the referendum on the constitution -- a go-ahead will be given for the election of the [president] of Chechnya, and the process of signing of an agreement dividing responsibilities between the [federal] center and the republic will commence," Petrov said.

But whether Chechens themselves accept the plan remains uncertain. Aleksei Makarkin is an analyst at the Center of Political Technologies, a Moscow-based think tank. He said it is still not clear what Russia will ultimately offer in a federal treaty. What is clear, he said, is that the Kremlin's vague promise of "broad autonomy" for Chechnya is not likely to translate into independent or even semi-independent status for the breakaway republic.

"Nobody will let the republic go away, even in the case that Russian sovereignty is formally recognized [by Chechnya]. The federal center needs real Russian sovereignty in the republic. It will respect peculiarities of the republic, but nothing more," Makarkin told RFE/RL.

The first clause of the draft constitution, though confusingly worded, is unambiguous in its intent to keep Chechnya firmly under Moscow's wing. It states: "The territory of the Chechen Republic is indivisible and is an integral part of the territory of the Russian Federation."

Makarkin said Moscow's wording is based on fears that any degree of political independence may create an uncontrollable situation similar to that of the 1990s, which witnessed the outbreak of two wars between federal forces and Chechen separatist rebels.

But Makarkin did say Chechnya may be offered some rights not extended to other Russian regions. "The [federal] center may recognize some local habits, some local attributes -- for instance, the Council of Elders. It may give guarantees that those Chechen political groups that agree that Chechnya is a member of the Russian Federation will be allowed to take part in political life," Makarkin said.

Makarkin said that the head of the pro-Moscow Chechen government, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, recently indicated he would try to reach a deal with Moscow allowing Chechnya to control its own oil and energy sector -- something, the analyst says, Moscow may not agree to.

Makarkin added that historically, there are no legal precedents for making Chechnya a part of Russia. He said if Russia succeeds in signing a federal treaty with Chechnya that is accepted by a substantial part of the Chechen people, it will be the first agreement of its kind in the history of the 300-year relations between Chechnya and Russia. "As a legal document [the treaty] is likely to be a very serious innovation," he said.

Petrov, from the Carnegie Moscow Center, said any treaty with the federal government cannot be enforced against the will of the Chechen society. Even the support of the pro-Moscow Chechen administration is not a guarantee of success, he said. "Until now [the pro-Moscow administration] is in power because of the help of the Russian federal forces. How can you normalize the situation in the republic and win public support for measures [like a federal treaty]? If [a new government] win such public support, then a new agreement may become something real, something reflecting the status of Chechnya and not just a piece of paper. It is a very big problem," Petrov said.

Petrov said Russia may manage to conduct the referendum, appoint the new government, and have the federal treaty signed. But it may be a hollow victory. "We can arrange a referendum, we can get the results we want -- the results we are promising to produce. We can announce that an agreement is signed, that the war is over and everything is in order. The problem is whether it will reflect reality and whether it will be possible to control the situation in the republic," he said.

Petrov said he is not sure if now is the best time for a referendum, with wartime hostilities still raging. He also doubts a majority of Chechens will either vote or accept the results of the vote.