March 8th 2003 · Prague Watchdog / Ilya Maksakov · PRINTER FRIENDLY FORMAT · E-MAIL THIS · ALSO AVAILABLE IN: RUSSIAN 

Chechnya: Political solution or confrontation?

Ilya MAKSAKOV, correspondent of the Russian daily ”Izvestiya”

Special to Prague Watchdog

This is the fourth year of the second Chechen war and the first year of Moscow’s attempts to take measures toward reaching a political solution to this crisis. In fact, the need for a peaceful solution to the conflict has been widely discussed since the deployment in the autumn of 1999 of armed forces in Chechnya. Yet for the past three years, Russian leaders have not clarified what they mean by a political solution and holding a ”dialogue with the entire Chechen country.” Throughout all this time, political opponents of the Kremlin saw the road to peace as being simple and clear. It is now obvious that there will be no such negotiations in the foreseeable future, at least in the sense promoted by Aslan Maskhadov and his backers.

Referendum: Yes or No?

The first political measure is obviously the referendum on the new Chechen constitution, and the bills on presidential and parliamentary elections in Chechnya, which will take place on March 23. Some say that the Russian authorities were forced to act because of the Moscow theatre debacle in October 2002. However, the ”Nord-Ost” attack only accelerated a process that had been launched well before this tragic event took place.

On June 24, 2002 President Putin had already announced that the ”current phase of setting-up effective authorities in Chechnya would be concluded by the end of the year. Thereafter, we will move towards the normalization phase----adopting the Chechen constitution.” A few days later he appointed Ella Pamfilova as head of the Human Rights Commission, and Abdul-Khakim Sultygov as Putin’s special representative for observing human and civil rights and freedoms in Chechnya. That was considered as one of the political measures taken by Moscow; but it happened at practically the same time that Russian human rights defenders, especially the human rights centre ”Memorial”, ended their co-operation with the government.

Despite these circumstances, preparations for the referendum went full steam ahead. In the summer and autumn of last year, draft documents were prepared for the plebiscite, and they were virtually coming to a close when the ”Nord-Ost” incident occurred; but the referendum would have been officially announced at the end of 2002 anyway.

A few weeks after the terrorist act in Moscow, a group of Chechen politicians, and public and religious officials approached Vladimir Putin with a request for a referendum. They were obviously Chechens loyal to Moscow and so this was not unexpected in the Kremlin, even though representatives of the ”Maskhadov” Parliament (elected in 1997) were among the signatories. But their request was needed in order to launch the process. On November 10 Putin met with the writers of the appeal, and a month later he signed the referendum decree.

Despite the seemingly staged and artificial look of the process (a ”puppet” organisation, as the Chechen separatists’ ideologists have named it), there was no other legal way to organize it. The referendum was not formally organised by the Kremlin or even by Akhmad Kadyrov, head of the Moscow-backed Chechen administration, but, instead, was initiated by a group headed by Khasim Taymaskhanov, who has so far remained behind the scenes.

Intense activity in preparing the referendum has been attributed to Kadyrov; and one has the feeling that the polls and subsequent elections have been organised to suit Kadyrov’s needs. That is one of the sore points of the political struggle. It is no secret that certain influential forces in Moscow attempted to move Kadyrov to a ”more important position”. The attempts were partially bound to the conflict earlier this year between him and Prime Minister Mikhail Babich. Kadyrov survived this “coup”, although attempts to remove him had begun on the day he was appointed. A significant section of the Chechen business and political elite now oppose the referendum as they do not want to support Kadyrov.

Thus, all events in Chechnya can be interpreted in various ways, and all are legitimate. Not a single person in Russia, Chechnya or the West, would dare say that a nation-wide election is wrong. Nor would anyone oppose a referendum as a political measure, apart from the separatists who, when in power, were categorically against the plebiscite. The main complaints are a lack of voting conditions and the referendum’s ability to bring peace to Chechnya. The hottest discussions in Russia and Europe relate to these issues.

One of the best examples of stalemating is Lord Judd, the PACE rapporteur on Chechnya, who announced it was too early for the referendum as there were no proper conditions for its organisation, despite the Chechens telling him that, ”Obviously the conditions here are not like those found in Europe, but that doesn’t mean we should not have the right to vote."

Chechnya is unlikely to establish such conditions for a referendum that would suit, let’s say, a western country, and the war is obviously a serious obstacle for free expression of will. But if the Russian authorities do keep their promise to establish such conditions, that alone will greatly benefit the Chechens. Moscow promised to withdraw their excessive troops, reduce the number of checkpoints, stop uncontrolled mop-ups and arrests, and cede all control to the local law enforcement authorities. If all this really happens, then at least preparations for the referendum will have benefited the country.

As far as referendum results are concerned, Lord Judd feels that this could escalate the conflict. Russian and Chechen authorities claim that the referendum would only be the beginning of a political process, not its objective. Alvaro Gil-Robles, the Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner, agrees. Yet one can hardly oppose the need to establish a legal basis and legally elected authorities in Chechnya.

A significant part of the criticism relates to the lack of any open public discussions of the documents to be voted on; there is no independent media in Chechnya, and any large event would require strong security measures. But because any citizen can receive the texts of such documents upon request, all issues are freely discussed anyway, on an every day basis, in marketplaces, squares and around government buildings.

Many things depend on the way in which the referendum will take place. Moscow guarantees that in comparison to the 1997 ballot, this one ”will be one step better.” That implies true nation-wide voting, free expression of will, and monitoring by the international community. If all these conditions are met, the result of the plebiscite will be evident; but it’s doubtful they will be. The observers, who will definitely be present in Chechnya on the 23rd, will make their own assessments; and their findings on the legality of the vote will influence the international community.

Constitutional Controversy

The constitutional draft, as part of the referendum, has been the focus of much criticism; most of the objections are that such a vast and complex document should not be presented in a nation-wide election. Additional criticism centers on the concepts such as sovereignty and Chechen citizenship.

In general the Chechen constitution complies with the federal one. It stipulates that the top-ranking official and head of executive power will be the President, and that any citizen of the Russian Federation, over 30 years old, is eligible to stand for this office. There is also a clause that there will be a two-chamber Parliament consisting of the Council of the Republic (senate) and the National Assembly. The first chamber will consist of 21 members, and the latter 40. Unlike the federal constitution and those of other republics, the Chechen draft defines the powers of both parliamentary chambers.

Nevertheless, the draft strengthens certain amendments of the Russian constitution in such a way that independence is out of the question. The section on free will is nearly the same as in the Russian one; yet the Chechen version omits the clause that ensures ”promulgating religious beliefs and any acts therein” as it protects the spread of religious extremism. However, the Russian clause stating, ”Everyone has the right to freedom and personal inviolability” has, in the Chechen version, a special clarifying statement that, ”No person shall be held in bondage.” This is a vital clause considering that the practice of kidnapping and enslaving people has, so far, not abated.

The draft also provides that the President of the Russian Federation will terminate the powers of the President of the Chechen Republic in the event of his removal. This raises the question: What kind of sovereignty is it if the head of state can remove the President of the Republic? No one in the Russian Federation would dare include such a clause in the Russian constitution.

There is one other specific feature in the second part of the document, which is that prior to electing legal officials, the system of government in Chechnya must be regulated. Therefore, it is important that before any administrative bodies are elected, a judicial system must be formed. Thus, as Russian leaders like to stress, Chechens will have judicial protection immediately after the plebiscite.

Reaction of the ”Opposing Side”

The reaction of the Chechen separatist leaders to this election has been harsher than it was to elections that were held in 1995, 1996 and 2000, when they paid little attention to such events. However, the present day threats of killing supporters or participants in the referendum (including distributing leaflets on behalf of the ”State Defense Committee of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya”) are not products of Russian military propaganda, but of Chechen militants; The act of terrorism last December, when the Chechen government building was bombed, was seen as an act to disrupt the referendum. Even if its organisers did not have this specific goal in mind, they must have surely realised that this is how the attack would be perceived.

The statement that separatist leaders have always spoken out against the referendum is also not Russian propaganda. In 1993, an attempt to organize a plebiscite was prevented by Dzhokhar Dudayev; but later, during the first Chechen war and in the period between ‘96 and ‘99, separatists firmly stated that Chechen independence is not a subject for discussion, nor is the election.

Leaflets distributed by the ”State Defense Committee of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya” state that the referendum will most likely take place and so ”the votes you cast will only help continue the destruction of Chechnya.”

In one of his last appearances, Maskhdov’s envoy, Akhmed Zakayev, compared the upcoming referendum to the ”pseudo ’95 elections where we voted for the head of the Chechen Republic.” He called the referendum ”a Kremlin farce, propaganda, and ideologically fuelling an anti-national war”. Zakayev also added that ”the Chechen people adopted a constitution in 1992”; however, he failed to mention that, at that time, the constitution was adopted not by the people, but by the Dudayev Parliament.

Recently, a well-known Chechen politician, Salambek Maigov, declared in Moscow, that Maskhadov had appointed him his representative to Russia. (Until then, Mairbek Vachagayev, who was arrested in Moscow in 1999, left Russia in 2000 and currently lives in France held that office.) Maigov says he was appointed in order to start the negotiation process. Many have perceived this as Maskhadov’s attempt at sending signals to the Kremlin via politicians who were totally loyal to Russia. Maigov, who indeed has had long-lasting disagreements with Moscow’s official line, and always advocated negotiation, nevertheless identifies himself with Russia; he lived many years in Moscow, graduated from two colleges there, and has formed good relationships within influential political circles.

As for Maigov’s appointment, Zakayev cites it as evidence of ”the true determination of the Chechen President towards a peaceful dialogue”. He also recognised Maigov’s personal courage, which has never been in dispute. Zakayev believes that “he demonstrated strong Chechen determination, which overshadows the furor swirling around the so-called referendum”.

The Finish Line

As the date of the referendum draws near, unexpected yet predictable problems have arisen. One is the upcoming votes of the Chechen business and political elite, renowned representatives of the Diaspora. For example, well-known Chechens have recently voiced their opinion of the referendum at a ”round table” in Moscow. The leader of the Association of Citizens Displaced from Chechnya and head of the Moscow Industrial Bank, Abubakar Arsamakov, stated that the upcoming referendum sanctions criminal policies, and is a desperate attempt by the people who brought catastrophe upon the republic to remain in power. Professor Salambek Khadzhiyev (Premier of the Moscow-created "Government of National Rebirth of the Chechen Republic” in 1994-1995; ed.), believes the referendum, in general, is useful but that it deceives the people. He thinks that fair and simple questions are now needed as ”we have simply paved the way towards further confrontation”. A former speaker of the Chechen Parliament, Amin Osmayev, also said there were many things he did not like about the drafts of the constitution and the presidential and parliamentary election acts; yet he was firmly against any attempts to hinder the plebiscite. Such negativism is undoubtedly due to the rejection of the Kadyrov administration, and that the representatives of the Diaspora are not entitled to vote in the referendum.

However, such complaints are not new. It has been said all along that complex issues should not be left up to a nation-wide vote, yet there is very little choice. Many people would like to ask the Chechens about the status of the republic and how they view the conflict. However, this would not be constitutional since the integrity of the Russian Federation, as well as the ”independence of Ichkeriya,” are not subjects for discussion, especially in a referendum, which could later be declared illegal.

The constitution is truly a comprehensive issue. In December 1993 the Russians voted for a constitution, but not because of its contents----few Russians understood them. The same can be applied to Chechnya----people will not be voting for the constitution per se, but for the future of the Republic. Russian leaders insist that Chechens understand everything very well and that they effectively need to answer just three simple questions: (1) Do they consider themselves to be citizens of Russia or do they not; (2) Do they support a presidential and parliamentary republic; and (3) Do they support a secular or a Sharia state.

Because there is no national consent in Chechnya, many feel the referendum may not be held. But the Kremlin’s response to that is the agreement on civil consent in Chechnya has been signed. Socio-political organisations, and Chechen administrative officials elected in various years who signed this document, declare that they reject the use of force in resolving political issues and support political discussions instead. It is expected that this agreement will also be signed by several MPs of the ”Maskhadov” Parliament, who were elected in 1997.

Meanwhile, various power groups actively joined in preparing the referendum. At their meetings, leaders discussed security during the election, and worked on measures for protecting citizens, polling stations and members of election committees. It was also decided to have enough telephone connections for all the 414 polling stations. Military and civil authorities are concerned with how to ensure car transportation to/from the polling stations, plus where to situate and how to protect the foreign observers and journalists.

Chechens views and opinions about current events were reflected in some recently conducted surveys. Two Chechen organisations were involved in this, the Press Ministry, and an independent information analysis centre ”Ala” (”Say”). These surveys must be viewed differently than most, as it must be noted that they reflect strong dissatisfaction of the Chechens with the actions of the federal centre. For example, 58.5% of them want to see the end of illegal arrests and tortures, and 40.6% believe it is necessary to monetarily compensate people for lost homes and property. And slightly more than 34% support expanding the powers of civil authorities, reducing the number of checkpoints and withdrawing non-permanent federal forces from Chechnya.

When answering the question, ”Who is to blame for the tragic events in Chechnya?” 62.5% said it was the federal centre; and 9.8% blame the separatists. Only 1% would vote for the “rebels”. 23.4% of respondents think that negotiations must be held with Maskhadov; yet 41.5% are against it. 36.3% of respondents would like to see a member of the Moscow Chechen Diaspora become their President, 16.5% would vote for Kadyrov, and 19.5% would vote for ”a representative of the federal centre”. As for the upcoming referendum, 76% are for it. However, only 59.4% agreed to vote for the proposed draft constitution, while 70.8% approved presidential and parliamentary elections in Chechnya. 47% of Chechens believe that referendum results will be objective, 21% do not, and 32% found it difficult to answer.


 · Referendum on a new Chechen constitution causes contradictory reactions


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