MOSCOW - While the world's attention is fixed on Iraq this weekend, Moscow will stage a referendum in Chechnya that it hopes will frame a political solution to the three-and-a-half year civil war in the breakaway Russian republic.
But the still-active separatist rebels have condemned the plan. And critics and human rights activists say the vote is premature as long as 80,000 Russian occupation troops remain unable to keep the peace in the tiny republic. On Thursday alone, two Russian helicopters went missing during counterinsurgency operations in Chechnya's rugged south.
According to the Kremlin plan, Chechnya's 537,000 voters will be asked to approve a road map to peace, which includes a new regional constitution, followed by elections for a fresh local government and the signing of a federal treaty to spell out the republic's division of powers with Moscow. Though the proposed constitution offers Chechnya "wide autonomy," its first clause states clearly that "the territory of the Chechen Republic is indivisible and is an integral part of the territory of the Russian Federation."
Rebels have warned they may stage attacks to disrupt the polling Sunday, and some experts fear that vote results could be fabricated to fit the Kremlin's expectations, much as happened during a similar Chechen election under Russian occupation in June 1996. More than a dozen Rus-sian human rights groups and liberal parties signed an appeal this week asking that the referendum be postponed until Moscow arranges a cease-fire and opens unconditional peace talks with the rebels.
"I fear the situation in Chechnya may even worsen after this referendum," says Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the liberal Yabloko party. "To achieve normalization in Chechnya there must first be a peace process, led by the Russian president, in which all warring sides are represented."
Exhausted by two wars that have killed an estimated 100,000 civilians and left almost half a million homeless, many Chechens yearn for peace. The tiny, mostly Muslim republic has seen nearly 12 years of chaos and destruction since Chechnya declared independence during the waning days of the USSR in 1991.
"For the Chechen people, this [referendum] is a last chance to find a peaceful political settlement," says Malik Saidullayev, a leading Chechen businessman who heads the State Council of Chechnya, an unofficial assembly of influential Moscow-based Chechens. "We will finally get a constitution and a political process to work within," he says. "This may not solve all problems, but it is a lesser evil than war."
The foreign minister of Chechnya's independence-minded rebel government, Ilyas Akhmadov, this week unveiled an alternative peace plan in Washington, which would defer the republic's quest for statehood until genuine peace was achieved. The proposal calls for international peacekeeping troops to take over security functions from widely-distrusted Russian troops - on the model of recent UN-backed operations in Kosovo and East Timor - to give Chechens an opportunity to rebuild their own political institutions.