Chechen referendum row

Originally published
The war-torn republic is gearing up for a constitution that will controversially affirm its status as part of Russia.
By Umalt Dudayev in Grozny (CRS No.170, 14-Mar-03)

Chechnya is heading for a constitutional referendum that has sharply divided opinion in the shattered republic.

Voters will be asked on March 23 to approve a new constitution, which regards Chechnya is an "integral and inseparable part" of the Russian Federation and, in contrast to any other constitution of an autonomous region, declares the republic's president may be dismissed at any time by Moscow.

Also controversial is the constitution's reference to Chechnya as a secular state, pointedly rejecting the Shariah Law introduced by the republic's pro-independence government in 1998.

Human rights activists and non-governmental organisations have been calling for a boycott of the vote, saying that Chechnya is not ready for a constitution that categorically defines the status of the republic, when it is so politically divided and still wracked by conflict.

In this they have received the backing of Lord Judd, special rapporteur to the Council of Europe on Chechnya, who is stepping down from his post, because of his opposition to the vote.

Even some anti-independence Chechen politicians have condemned the plebiscite. Salambek Khajiev, who headed a pro-Moscow government in Chechnya in 1994-5, called it a deception, while prominent businessman Abubakar Arsamakov, said it was a desperate attempt of those who have "degraded Chechnya to its current state, to remain in control".

A conference of Chechen rights groups and NGOs held in Nazran, Ingushetia, earlier this month called on President Putin to cancel the poll. In their final statement, the participants concluded that, "In the current environment, Chechens will not be able to express their true opinion. The referendum will, therefore, prolong and aggravate the disastrous military standoff."

Former Russian deputy Lev Ponomaryov of the NGO For Human Rights drew a parallel with Algeria, where France held a plebiscite in the late 1950s affirming that it was part of the French state, only to allow another vote in 1962, which gave Algeria independence.

In the last ten years, Chechnya has held two votes in 1991 and 1997 in which its citizens supported the idea of independence. Although the first was widely disputed, the second, bringing Aslan Maskhadov to power, was recognised by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and Russia itself. On February 3, 1997, the newly-elected parliament in Chechnya proclaimed the republic an independent state.

Not surprisingly, Maskhadov, who is still leading armed resistance to Russian forces in the mountains of Chechnya, has furiously condemned the vote and threatened to step up military action.

In radio and television message, Maskhadov and his supporters have urged Chechens to "boycott the referendum imposed by Russian authorities and a group of traitors led by (Moscow's current leader in Chechnya) Akhmad Kadyrov".

Colonel Ilya Shabalkin of the Russian military command has warned that Chechen guerrillas are "preparing a series of major terror attacks aiming to disrupt the referendum and ignite the situation".

This month has already seen a series of armed clashes across Chechnya. According to local villagers, last week more than 20 Russian marines were killed and several were captured by Chechen guerrillas near the mountain village of Sharo-Argun in the east of the republic. Caspian Fleet Commander, Rear Admiral Yuri Startsev, told ITAR-TASS six marines had died and 10 wounded in the skirmish.

A random poll on the streets of Grozny revealed widespread scepticism about the March 23 poll.

"They've been exterminating us as citizens of independent Ichkeria. Now they will start killing us as their fellow countrymen," said Alikhan Khasanov, a student at the Chechen State University. "I would gladly vote if this referendum were meant to bring peace to Chechnya, but I just don't believe the war is going to end in the foreseeable future."

"If they hold a referendum on a new constitution for Chechnya without ending the war and achieving national accord, it probably means more terror and violence and maybe even a civil war," said 56-year-old Apti Arsakayev.

Putin has given his strong backing to the March 23 vote ever since it was first suggested in June 2002. "We must back the initiative of the Chechen people," Putin told an extended meeting of the leadership of the Russian intelligence service, or FSB, on January 31, declaring that Chechnya itself had come up with the idea for the referendum, which, he said, would bring stability to the region. Kadyrov, the strongest advocate of the vote, told ITAR-TASS news agency in January, "People need peace. The referendum and ensuing election will be the cornerstones of the peace process."

Preparations for the vote on the "Kadyrov constitution", as many have already named it, are proceeding at full speed. All Chechen newspapers have published the draft in both the Russian and Chechen languages.

Khasan Taimaskhanov, one of the main organisers, told IWPR that some 500,000 brochures of the draft constitution and its laws for both presidential and parliamentary elections (expected to take place later in the year) have been handed out to people in Chechnya and that 414 polling stations have been set up around the republic.

Controversially, around 40,000 Russian soldiers stationed in Chechnya are being allowed to take part in the vote.

A series of Chechen newspaper articles give no room for doubt that the result will be a resounding yes vote. In phrases, heavily redolent of Soviet times, the headlines proclaim "Everyone, to the Referendum!" and "The Referendum is Our Future!"

Speaking at a press conference in Grozny on February 21, Kadyrov said, "The people have spoken in favour of the referendum. Those who resist it are enemies of the people, and we must get rid of them."

The draft constitution defines Chechnya as a presidential republic. The legislative branch will be represented by a two-house parliament: the Republic Council (Senate) and the Popular Assembly, consisting of 21 and 40 deputies respectively. The president and parliament deputies will be elected for a four-year term.

Umalt Dudayev is the pseudonym of a freelance Chechen journalist