Special to Prague Watchdog
The referendum on the constitution of the Chechen Republic, slated for March 23, has been presented as a panacea, a remedy for all ills - primarily war. Moscow assumes that Chechnya will finally be embodied within the Russian legal system; officials in Grozny hope they will finally cease to be considered as mere stooges of Moscow and be recognized as a national government; Chechens wish that by voting for the constitution they would finally achieve a long-awaited peace. However, there is one major drawback to these hopes and dreams - the rebels have never been consulted about this longed for armistice. Thus it is doubtful that peace will ever be realized; the war that began long before the referendum was planned will unlikely be terminated by it.
"Everyone For the Referendum! Time to End the war!"
These are but two of the slogans circulating throughout Grozny these days. Against the backdrop of a ruined city, they appear garish -like promising paradise in times of plague. Yet this promotional hype about peace returning has not been successful. Citizens pay little heed to such attempts; they simply don't care. In a land where there are few, if any, jobs to be found, it is a daily struggle not only to feed their families, but to dodge a constant barrage of bullets.
Life is tough in Grozny-people continue disappearing without a trace. At any given time, heavily armed, masked men jump out of darkened cars, snatch someone and speed off to unknown destinations. And the majority of these people are never seen again.
Chechens are sick and tired of this senseless and brutal war; yet they have little faith that a peaceful life will follow after the referendum. They have no confidence in the Kadyrov government, or the federal one either, which is too distant from Caucasian reality.
By promising peace in exchange for approving the constitution, the republic's leadership have avoided realistic issues that have accumulated over the years; namely, human rights violations, rampant unemployment, demolished homes, and embezzlement of funds sent to aid Chechnya.
Sovereign Chechnya Within Russia?
This is another absurdity in the constitution. It is quite possible that through Moscow's silent consent, Chechnya's position within Russia will be attained. After years of fighting for independence, let the people rejoice. Ignore the fact that Chechens paid for their sovereignty with rivers of blood and utter devastation; the important thing is that they swallow the bait.
There is nothing unexpected in the manner in which Chechen leadership trifles with the nation. It is just one way of deceiving and coaxing people to take part in the referendum. Yet, unwittingly, Chechens are being dragged into a new war-a political one.
In Akhmad Kadyrov's opinion, the words about sovereignty are specifically intended to unite a fragmented society. Yet it is also specifically clear that he expects to be the future president of the republic. However, he doesn't realize that sovereignty may turn people against him-people who understand the political ambitions that drive this man.
Relying on the electorate may turn out to be folly for Kadyrov. Nevertheless, he wouldn't be head of the current administration if he hadn't considered all his moves in advance. Being confident that the referendum would be held, he publicly declared that Chechnya will make its choice and that's all that matters. He knows the constitution will pass for even in warring Chechnya the process is democratic.
This prognosis is not baseless. All heads of district, municipal and village administrations have already received instructions on how to organize the referendum. And there are indications that these leaders have been instructed to exert pressure on residents, and to report that 100 % of the electorate voted for the constitution. In addition, it is expected that retirement and child support benefits will be paid on the eve of the referendum. According to some people, though, a proportion of ballots have already been filled out in support of the constitution and are stored in a secluded place, ready to surface at the appropriate time.
Concerns of the OSCE and EU, regarding the ill-timed and hastily planned referendum, are legitimate. Within such a short period, its text could not have reached every citizen in time to grasp its essence and understand all positive and negative aspects. Under such circumstances, it is impossible to verify the referendum's legality.
Neither Peace Nor War
The current campaign in Chechnya has entered a new phase. Because of the vast number of federal troops sent there, the rebels were forced to go underground. Their main activities now are diversionary and subversive. This has turned out to be quite effective as demonstrated by the "Nord-Ost" tragedy in Moscow, and blowing up the building of the Moscow-backed government in Grozny. The war has now become a slow, drawn-out process.
For the people, though, this change is no improvement. Federal units continue to shell various regions of the republic, especially in the mountains. And so-called "targeted special operations" are still carried out, during which innocent citizens disappear and perish. This January, during some routine check in Argun and in the Mesker-Yurt village, 19 young people disappeared; only sometime later, friends and relatives found their badly mutilated bodies
Almost daily, various villages are blockaded, and residents forbidden to step out of their homes, not even to get food or water. Periodically roads to Grozny are shut down, preventing people from going to work and students to school.
But despite the security checks and mop-up operations, rebels still descend on the villages and create mayhem. Last autumn, they came into the village of Avtury and took control of it for several hours; upon leaving, they took with them one of the villagers who had collaborated with the federal authorities.
This, along with other facts, makes one wonder about the safety of the people who plan on taking part in the referendum; it is well known that the rebels are planning to launch combat operations during that time. Therefore, security measures by federal forces and the police will be extremely tight, which, ironically may end up obstructing the election.
Unlike Grozny, which is literally surrounded by the military and thus provides some safety for the voters, other areas are much less protected. Some villagers may well think twice before heading out to the voting booths.
The Silent Minority
The upcoming referendum on the Constitution has another peculiarity-nearly a third of the population will not take part in it, certainly not those who left the country during the first or second war. They are the so-called temporarily displaced persons who settled in various regions of the Russian Federation, and by so doing, will not be able to evaluate the constitution or even take part in the referendum. Federal law does not allow citizens residing outside of Chechyna to vote. This violation of constitutional rights has been accepted in silence, for obvious reasons. Were Moscow to organize a referendum outside the republic, it would cause enormous problems and a huge expense. For Kadyrov's administration to raise the issue would not help either, as holding the referendum in areas not under his control could lead to unwelcome results. Moreover, Kadyrov has openly criticized his fellowmen who now live outside the republic, accusing them of not being patriotic.
In Mari El, where about 300 Chechens live, no information has circulated about the constitution or the referendum. As the Immigration Department of the local Interior Ministry stated, no such instructions have come from above. However, law enforcement agencies did receive orders from Moscow to stiffen control over Chechen immigrants. Special OMON units were instructed to meet all trains arriving from Moscow to Yoshkar-Ola; and any Chechens disembarking were to be taken to the police station to be interrogated, searched, registered and videotaped.
The referendum on "Kadyrov's constitution", as it is called here, is perceived in different ways by local Chechens. Following are some random opinions:
Aslan, 27 years:
No new constitution will end the war. The whole thing is just fiction and a deceit. Somebody needs this war to continue, which is why it won't end for a long time. Taking part in such a referendum is absurd.
Ruslan, 32 years:
I neither care for President Maskhadov, nor for President Kadyrov. Neither one has brought anything good to the Chechen people. Each is concerned only with himself and not about the people, who have lost everything in this war. The referendum or its results make no difference to me whatsoever. People keep dying in Chechnya and someone comes up with these fairytales about a constitution and a soon-to-be-ended war.
Magomed, 55 years:
What new Constitution are they talking about? We already have one. And according to it, only parliament can declare a referendum and decide what questions to ask. The present referendum is simply illegal.
Chechens living in Mari El concur on one point: approving a new constitution and electing a new president of Chechnya will not stop the war.
The Day War Ends
Everyone in Chechnya hopes the war will end; so does Moscow, as they have spent millions of roubles on the war in Chechnya while scores of other problems are neglected. Nobody needs or wants this war. Is there really nothing that can be done about it?
Moscow is betting that Kadyrov can do something; but he thinks only about how to increase his personal power, which will hardly bring peace to Chechnya. He is not popular among the populace and even less so among the rebels, who consider him a traitor.
The referendum is deceiving as its goal is to create an illusion of the republic's rebirth. A new constitution and Akhmad Kadyrov will hardly resolve an issue that the federal army has been unable to do in three and half years.
Will Moscow be able to overcome its ambitions and form a policy that might end the war? So far, no such steps have been taken. But if international organizations got involved in mediation, this could yield positive results, as this approach would have no negative effects on Russia's image. Quite the contrary, its prestige would increase in the eyes of the world.
Although it is feared the referendum will not bring peace, one of the answers to a key question may stop the bloodshed: Do Chechens want to live as part of Russia, or do they not? The Chechen people alone should decide the future of the republic, not the seats of power.
Imran Ismailov is a free-lance journalist and frequent contributor to Prague Watchdog.
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