Russia pushes constitutional vote in Chechnya

Referendum's legitimacy put in doubt by violence

March 23, 2003|By Alex Rodriguez | Alex Rodriguez,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SLEPTSOVSK, Russia - The Russian government will ask thousands of Chechens today to map the future of their small, strongly independent republic through a constitutional referendum. But Vakha Shokarov can't summon the will to vote.

The body of his son, Murat, 31, turned up at a city morgue last month, three weeks after Russian authorities whisked him away in a raid. The body had been dismembered and blackened with a blowtorch.

His other son, Vicit, 37, vanished after he asked police about Murat's disappearance. He hasn't been seen since.

Crouched on a tiny bench in a dimly lighted refugee tent, Shokarov says his life's cares have been reduced to two: "All I want out of life now is food and sleep. That's all."

In staging the referendum, Russia is asking Chechens to adopt a constitution and set the stage for presidential and parliamentary elections even as Europe's worst active conflict rages.

Many are too skeptical about the outcome to vote - or too afraid of rebel attacks at polling sites - which is why many observers believe the Kremlin's drive to persuade Chechnya, Russia and the international community of the election's legitimacy faces stiff odds.

In the past few weeks, the Russian government has pulled out all stops to create a veneer of normality in Chechnya aimed at proving that the time is right for the breakaway province to adopt a new constitution.

Troop withdrawals have begun, the military has announced, and several checkpoints have been dismantled. In a televised address to Chechnya, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin promised the republic sweeping autonomy under the aegis of Russia.

But Putin is trying to cajole a war-weary population that deeply distrusts the Russian government and the pro-Moscow Chechens it assigned to oversee the province. The Russian government says it is spending millions to restore Chechnya's infrastructure, but the province's representative in parliament, Aslambek Aslakhanov, says much of the money is embezzled before it arrives.

Moscow's preparations for the referendum gave Chechens more cause to view the election with doubt and suspicion. In refugee tent camps just outside Chechnya, Chechens were told that they would lose their bread rations and other humanitarian aid if they did not register to vote.

In the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the largely Islamic republic tried to wrest itself from Russian rule. In 1994, Moscow sent troops into Chechnya to crush separatists. The military left in 1996, but troops returned in 1999 after the rebels' invasion of the neighboring province of Dagestan.

Under the proposed constitution, Chechnya would remain a Russian republic but be allowed limited self-rule. It would elect its own president and parliament and draft its own laws, provided they did not conflict with Russian federal law.

But analysts estimate that at least half of all Chechens remain loyal to the republic's last elected president, Aslan Maskhadov.

Maskhadov has denounced the referendum as a sham. But he also renewed an offer to the Kremlin to hold peace talks.

His foreign minister, Ilyas Akhmadov, proposed a peace plan recently that calls for Chechnya's independence but would give Russia "a substantial role" in setting the conditions for achieving it.

The Kremlin ignored the offer. It believes that Maskhadov had prior knowledge, at least, of last fall's takeover of a theater in Moscow that resulted in the deaths of more than 129 hostages. They also blame him for the bombing of the republic's main administration building in Grozny, which killed 83 people. Maskhadov has denied involvement in both attacks.

"Maskhadov is the past," said Alexander Machevsky, a Putin spokesman. "Whatever he says, we don't really care. He is the past, and the referendum is about the future."

Maskhadov has vowed to disrupt the referendum and has begun carrying out the threat. Though heavily guarded by pro-Moscow Chechen police, several polling places were attacked last week by rebels during nighttime raids in the villages of Gekhi, Shali and Chiri-Yurt.

Security doubts are the reason the two groups that routinely scrutinize European elections - the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the Council of Europe - decided against sending observers to Chechnya. OSCE is sending a "fact-finding team," but it won't be a formal mission.

The Council of Europe's point man for monitoring the Chechen war for the past three years, Britain's Frank Judd, resigned in January in protest of the Kremlin's insistence on holding the referendum during war conditions.

The United States also doubts the legitimacy of a constitutional referendum held during wartime. A senior U.S. diplomat said that, as a possible framework for a democratically elected government, the referendum makes sense. But the timing doesn't.

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