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EU: European Commission Says Referendum In Chechnya A 'Positive Step'

Brussels, 24 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union today welcomed yesterday's constitutional referendum in Chechnya as a "positive step."

Diego de Ojeda, the commission's external affairs spokesman, said the EU is not aware of any grave security breaches during the voting.

He said the EU hopes the referendum becomes a basis for a "comprehensive" political solution in Chechnya: "We hope this will be a positive step in the direction of a political solution to the situation in Chechnya with which the majority of the people of Chechnya can go along."

De Ojeda said the referendum "by itself" will not change the EU's policy toward the conflict in Chechnya, but noted it had achieved a high turnout.

He said Russia needs to improve the human-rights situation in the republic, which remains "unsatisfactory." The commission will also continue giving Chechnya humanitarian assistance and will maintain its position as the biggest contributor of aid to the republic.

De Ojeda said there had been "reasonable fears" in the EU that "security incidents" could take place, as polling stations had received threats, but that events had turned out -- as he put it -- "better than expected."

EU officials said privately the bloc has no competence to pronounce on the legitimacy of the referendum, noting it will be up to the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to offer their assessment.

One official said on condition of anonymity that the referendum took place under circumstances that were "not perfect," and that there is "no 100-percent clarity."

EU officials said Commonwealth of Independent States observers in Chechnya have already reported that some violations of internationally accepted practices took place. Among others, the stationing of armed guards at polling stations could be construed as an attempt to intimidate voters, although the official said that considering the security situation in Chechnya, protection appeared necessary.

De Ojeda said today that no EU or OSCE observers had been present in Chechnya over the weekend: "In countries covered by the OSCE, the EU does not lead observation missions, but it does field, when it so decides, observers, or it contributes to OSCE observation missions. But in this case, the OSCE decided that the conditions -- security conditions, primarily -- were not met for them to send an observation team."

Russian authorities terminated the mandate of the OSCE observation mission in Chechnya late last year, although a small team remains in place to wrap up operations. That team is also expected to file a report on the referendum.

EU officials said endemic kidnappings carried out by Chechen rebels in recent years were the main fear, as international observers would have needed prohibitively extensive security measures.

Officials admitted some EU member states had expressed unease over the timing of the referendum, but noted that concerns had abated somewhat after Moscow won the support of "numerous" deputies in the prewar Chechen parliament.

Chechnya has continued to drop on the EU's agenda in recent months. An internal document prepared for last week's EU summit on upgrading EU-Russian relations -- seen by RFE/RL -- makes no mention of Chechnya.

EU officials indicate concerns related to Chechnya tend increasingly to be subsumed under general pressure on Russia to improve its human rights record and safeguard democratic freedoms.

EU member states remain split on the issue, with some strongly in favor of giving Chechnya a high profile in EU-Russia relations, while others argue for dropping the subject altogether "in the present geopolitical climate."