When I met President Putin in late November last year in Moscow, I assured him of Assembly's support for any initiative aimed at bringing peace and stability to Chechnya, in accordance with our standards and principles.
But today, just days from the crucial vote, it is necessary to spell out clearly what our position is on the content, timing and circumstances in which the vote on 23 March is likely to take place, as well as on the prospects for the political process which it is hoped the referendum will launch.
As promised by President Putin, I received a copy of the draft constitution, which I immediately sent to the Venice Commission, Europe and the world's foremost body of experts in constitutional law. The final text of the opinion, adopted on 14 March, regrets the absence of more tangible incentives to attract the support of those Chechens sceptical about or even hostile to the Russian authorities. More specifically, the Commission's experts said they would prefer a greater role for the authorities of the Republic, clearer definitions of the Chechen people and language and more unequivocal provisions concerning the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. However, they accept that the future constitution will allow the establishment of a new tier of institutions at the level of the Chechen Republic and may represent the first step in a process of devolution of power to the Republic on the basis of the possibilities offered by the Russian Constitution. According to the opinion, the adoption of the draft constitution may contribute to a future political settlement. We can only hope that the shortcomings noted by Europe's highest authority in constitutional matters are properly remedied later on in the process.
The timing of the referendum
While I personally, and the Assembly as a whole, support the idea of the referendum, serious concerns remain about the circumstances in which it is likely to take place. The Assembly's rapporteur, who visited the region last January, suggested that the referendum should be postponed. The majority of Assembly members, while sharing his concerns about the political, security, human rights and humanitarian situation in the Chechen Republic felt that asking the Russian authorities to postpone the referendum without offering an alternative was not an option either. We are worried, and we follow the situation very closely, but we do hope that the situation will improve and that the referendum will mark the beginning of a genuine search for a political solution to the conflict. We are ready to do what we can to contribute to this objective.
At the same time, I should like to call on the Russian authorities, and in particular on our parliamentary colleagues, to maintain a constructive attitude in co-operating with the Assembly and to abstain from inflammatory statements and personal attacks which are unacceptable and unhelpful.
Observation of the vote
We welcome the readiness of the Russian authorities to accept international observers, the presence of whom would certainly help the transparency of the process. However, it is also clear that this vote will take place in exceptional circumstances and that security conditions are so precarious that they preclude a normal deployment of Assembly observers. It was on these grounds, and on these grounds alone, that the Bureau of the Assembly meeting on 31 January decided against sending a delegation to observe the referendum. On 10 March the Bureau again discussed the situation and confirmed this decision.
This decision should not, however, be interpreted as an indication of our views on the process as a whole. Our final evaluation will, of course, take into account the conduct of the vote on 23 March, on the basis of information available to us, but it will depend primarily to the extent to which the referendum will succeed in bringing Chechnya any closer to peace and some sort of normality.
This remains a matter of most serious concern. The Assembly's Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights has prepared a highly critical report for a plenary debate in April, which deplores the continued climate of impunity for crimes against civilians, be they committed by members of Russian forces or Chechen combatants.
There must be an immediate and substantial improvement in the human rights situation, both in terms of prevention of new abuses and the prosecution of those already committed. This is essential if President Putin's plan is to have any chance of success. As long as the people of the Chechen Republic continue to suffer from human rights abuses committed with total impunity by Russian troops, they are unlikely to trust the authorities under whose command these troops are deployed. Every crime that goes unpunished diminishes the chances of a political settlement through the referendum. It is true that many crimes are also committed by Chechen combatants, but this in no way justifies the conduct of Russian security forces.
The Assembly supports the Russian authorities in their willingness to end the war in the Chechen Republic through political means and recognises the importance of a constitutional referendum as a means of achieving this. We continue to have serious concerns about the security, political and other conditions in which the referendum will be held on 23 March, and I call on the Russian authorities to do all within their power to improve the situation so that the people can vote in as free and as fair a manner as possible.
However, regardless of any differences of opinion we may have on the modalities and the timing of the referendum, or the content of the draft submitted to the vote, we sincerely hope that the referendum will bring the people of Chechnya closer to peace. This is also the ultimate criterion against which this initiative of the Russian authorities will be judged. The key to success was, and remains, respect for human rights. For the time being this is deplorable, and the Russian authorities must do much more than what they have been doing so far, and do it immediately, if they want the people of Chechnya to trust and participate in the political process the referendum is meant to launch.
I want to conclude by issuing the strongest possible warning to those who attempt to disrupt the referendum process by threats or violence. To oppose the proposed constitution is perfectly legitimate, but it should be done through political means. Through ballots, not bullets or intimidation. The people of Chechnya must have a chance to express themselves freely regardless of their views on future relations with Moscow. But those who want, instead, to enforce their views through terror against the majority, which wants only peace, should be warned: they will lose, once and forever, the right to speak for and represent the people of Chechnya, and they will be made accountable for their deeds.
Too many people have died already, too many children have been orphaned, too many homes have been destroyed. It is high time that reason and humanity stand up against the logic of violence and hate. The referendum, if carried out and followed up properly, is a chance for that to happen. A chance that should not be missed.