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Chechnya: Rights Groups Dispute Kremlin Claim That New Constitution Sets Foundation For Peace

Moscow is hailing its new constitution for Chechnya -- approved in a controversial referendum last Sunday, 23 March -- as the cornerstone for peace in the war-torn region. Some Chechens have also welcomed the process, saying they support any move to curb the Russian military's human rights violations in the breakaway republic. But while it is unclear exactly how the Kremlin's touted plan for peace will play out, rights groups and aid organizations say they doubt Chechnya's new constitution will have any real impact on the republic's future.

Moscow, 27 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The Russian government says it is confident that a political process toward peace is finally underway in the war-torn region of Chechnya.

Officials are basing their hopes on the results of a referendum that overwhelmingly approved a new constitution for Chechnya last weekend. The document subordinates the breakaway region as an "inseparable and integral" part of Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday called the process a resounding success, saying Chechens had "made their choice for peace and development together with Russia:"

"We have resolved the last serious problem facing the territorial integrity of Russia. During the referendum on March 23, the people of Chechnya did it directly and in the most democratic way."

In the vote last Sunday, 96 percent of those taking part supported the passage of the Kremlin-drafted constitution. In response to two additional questions on elections, some 95 percent voted in approval of holding presidential elections in six months; 96 percent approved parliamentary elections later in the year.

Groups monitoring the referendum dispute the figures. But a number of Chechens have nonetheless welcomed the new constitution, agreeing with the official position that its passage will serve as a fresh start for the unstable region.

One such supporter is Hussein Bibulatov, a former Chechen deputy prime minister who took part in peace negotiations after the region's first conflict, from 1994 to 1996. Bibulatov spoke on Wednesday during a discussion by a new civic group dedicated to helping facilitate Chechnya's development under Moscow's rule: "The main development we were waiting for -- the first step of adopting a constitution and the creation of a normative base for the resulting formation of legitimate authority in the Chechen Republic -- has been accomplished."

Many in Chechnya have greeted the process as a way of cutting down on the rampant rights violations committed by Russian forces stationed in the region, including so-called "zachitski," or mopping-up operations, which have led to countless disappearances over the course of the war. The corpses of such "disappeared" Chechens are sometimes found later, often bearing signs of torture.

The regional elections commission reported a total turnout of over 80 percent in the weekend referendum. Aslambek Aslakhanov, a Duma deputy representing Chechnya, was in the region during the referendum last weekend and told reporters he was taken aback by the participation of so many voters: "On the one hand it's an act of desperation -- [the hope] that it may give some benefit. But in many cases it's hope that the referendum will bring peace to the republic. The population says that most of all, it wants the criminal, inhumane actions to stop -- when armored personnel carriers show up at dusk and take away young men whose fate can remain unknown for years."

Aslakhanov said he was ready to work with the government to ensure elections bring about real change. He said a number of qualified officials and businessmen could make good candidates.

But Aslakhanov adds that the new constitution will only work if the government takes action immediately: "If radical changes aren't brought about in the republic in the period of a month, the trust that the people just gave those carrying out political actions in the Chechen Republic can come crashing down in a short period of time."

Chechen advocates question such reasoning. Elena Burtina of the Civic Assistance group, which helps Chechen refugees in Moscow, says the new constitution will likely do little for the Chechen population: "Nothing stood in the way of stopping [the zachistki] earlier -- or even of not beginning them at all. The zachistki, as they are carried out, don't have anything to do with the fight against terrorists. It's an act of retribution against the population and mostly concerns people who have nothing to do with the [rebel] opposition."

Even several pro-Moscow members of the civic group on Chechnya said that, despite welcoming the referendum, they feel Moscow will eventually have to sit down for talks with Chechen separatist rebels.

That represents a big challenge. The government resolutely refuses to negotiate with separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov, elected Chechen president in 1997 in voting recognized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Moscow calls Maskhadov and his followers "bandits" and "terrorists."

A commonly held view is that the referendum's main aim in sidelining Maskhadov was to legitimize the current Moscow-installed Chechen administration headed by Akhmad Kadyrov. He is at the top of the list of those eyeing the Chechen presidency, which would give him a degree of independence from the Kremlin that appointed him.

Critics meanwhile oppose the proposed constitution for giving the federal government much more sway over Chechnya than over other regions, granting the Russian president the power to sack the Chechen leader and depriving the population the right to appeal to international arbitration bodies.

But the details of Chechnya's future are as yet unclear. In addition to setting the date for presidential elections, Putin must now move forward with plans to negotiate a federal treaty with Chechnya that will hammer out the specifics of its status and establish the structure of its administration.

Analysts say that even if Kadyrov were to win the presidency, he would likely not be able to run the region with the broad autonomy the Kremlin now promises. Among the key issues is control over Chechen oil, which Moscow is not expected to relinquish.

Burtina says Kadyrov's attempt to legitimize his rule will fail. "There's no less respected person in Chechnya than Kadyrov," she says of the former rebel warlord.

Rights defenders maintain that talks with separatists remain the only way toward a real political solution.

Maskhadov aide Salambek Maigov on Wednesday called the referendum results a "pure falsification in the best tradition of the Soviet past," the Associated Press reported.

Ruslan Badalov, head of the Chechen National Salvation Committee, says the new constitution has no legal basis because Maskhadov continues to be the region's only legitimate political leader.

Badalov agrees that the results of last week's referendum were falsified: "It's a crime against the people of the Chechen Republic -- the entire civilian population. It's a continuation of the degradation, harassment, and insulting of the people, who have endured more than three-and-a-half years of another military campaign."

Badalov echoes the common opinion among rights defenders that, without talks, the cycle of rebel attacks and Russian military retribution against the population will continue unchecked despite Moscow's best hopes for the political solution it has been planning.