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March 21st 2003 · Prague Watchdog / Musa Tumsoyev · PRINTER FRIENDLY FORMAT · E-MAIL THIS · ALSO AVAILABLE IN: RUSSIAN 

The Russian referendum in Chechnya

Musa Tumsoyev

Special to Prague Watchdog


March 23rd will be a political farce, the absurdity of which will not only surpass the elections of Chechen deputies to the Russian State Duma, but the 1995 election of the head of Chechnya as well.

Organizing a referendum at this time on the constitution and legislation regulating presidential and parliamentary elections can best be described as a “constitutional mop-up” of Chechnya conducted by the Russian leaders. The special measures imposed to instill a Russian constitutional perception in the consciousness of Chechens, together with ineffective military and police mop-ups in order to establish constitutional order, is counter-productive and further delays any peaceful resolution of the conflict. Although the process of optimizing Chechen society has yet to be completed, the work for its ideological advancement is already well under way.

Past experiences of Russian referendums

Russia has experience with resolving conflicts via democratic procedures. In March 1990, Russians voted to preserve the Soviet Union. However, the leading elite, concerned only about their personal ambitions, helped bring about the Union’s speedy collapse.

A subsequent attempt in the early 90s, to end the power crisis by a referendum, also failed; the outcome served only to demonstrate the predominance of one side, rather than reflect general consensus. Traditionally, society’s evolution in Russia has often been achieved through forceful means in order to gain momentary and tactical advantages. Thus it is not surprising that an anti-constitutional decree, followed shortly by the storming of the parliament building in October 1993, consolidated the referendum’s results, which, two months later, on December 12, 1993, led to approving their constitution. Although this was adopted in a nation-wide election, it still could not guarantee safety for the citizens. The intense confrontations that followed still overshadow the constitution, which has become a source of violence for its opponents.

Incidentally, the Kremlin seems to have recently introduced a new ruling whereby most decrees concerning Chechnya will only be approved on dates significant to Russia. This is undoubtedly done to disprove the legality of the independent Chechen Republic. For example, the decree about the Chechen referendum was signed on Russia’s constitution day (December 12, 2002); and the decree for appointing the head of the Moscow-backed Chechen administration was signed on Russia’s independence day (June 12, 2000).

The referendum is officially being held through the initiative of the Chechens; and President Putin merely responded to their requests by introducing a “Peaceful Resolution Plan” for the crisis,” which began the dialogue with the Chechen nation. The Kremlin ordered its own administration, despite its being the cause of the war, to represent Chechnya. This dialogue was inevitable since Russia is in a struggle with the entire country. But the federal center might find itself in conflict with its own administration as well as the electoral committee in Chechnya, who were ordered to organize the referendum. But the Russian “from referendum to elections” policy will unlikely resolve or end this conflict.

European concept and Russian reality

PACE and other international legal organizations by “Acknowledging the role of a referendum in determining a future democratic structure and constitution of Chechnya” see certain conditions as necessary in order to hold a referendum: It is assumed that the referendum is a result of a compromise made by both sides and will bring about peaceful development in the country. Yet such an historical event should indicate a certain level of stability, guarantee safety to all citizens, observe human rights and liberties, and represent criteria for obtaining a general consensus. For Russia, however, this referendum is not a means to an end, but the beginning of a political peace process in Chechnya. In their estimation, military actions against armed groups and mop-up operations against Chechen civilians are simply a part of the political show.

Russia’s membership in the Council of Europe does not mean that they will automatically accept and implement Western democratic values. Not only do they refuse to understand that the Chechen issue cannot be resolved by force, or that the region will never find peace, nor that terrorist acts will never cease without mutual agreement and European democratic values, but they also ignore basic democratic principles such as observing human rights and liberties. They simply implement democratic procedures differently. The Russian political elite is prepared to cloak themselves in democratic attributes in order to strengthen its power base, yet is intent on keeping a newly formed state within the boundaries of a totalitarian system. It also provides its own interpretation of European values while ignoring democratic ones.

At the end of last year, Russia, calling itself the main arbiter in the fight against world terrorism, did not extend OSCE’s mandate in Chechnya. Moscow decided it would now grant mandates to international organizations from which they can request humanitarian aid, rather than letting them simply monitor observance of human rights. Russia’s attempt at asserting its right to regulate conflicts in the world, particularly in Europe, has been an ongoing issue in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Western reactions prove that European politicians do not know how to coordinate democratic values with Russian reality.

Discouraged by the harshness of Russian authorities, international organizations at first chose to ignore all sorts of political mishaps conducted in Chechnya. Believing there would be no major worldwide objections against the referendum, the debate focused on skillfully shifting its timing. Russia is prepared to delude the West with its avowed intentions of using the referendum as a political resolution of the Chechen conflict.

The West’s numerous concessions show that the Council of Europe, with Russia as one of its members, has failed in fulfilling its purpose. One of the resolutions of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly entitled “Evaluation of the prospects for a political solution of the conflict in the Chechen Republic” is symptomatic of this: “With regard to the human rights situation in the Chechen Republic, the Assembly remains distressed by the number of killings of politically active individuals, by repeated disappearances and the ineffectiveness of the authorities in investigating them, as well as by the widespread allegations and indications of brutality and violence against the civilian population in the Republic; the Assembly notes the intention of the Russian federal and Chechen authorities to hold a referendum on a draft constitution for the Chechen Republic on 23 March 2003; the Assembly is concerned that the necessary conditions for holding such a referendum might not be met by this date.” The Council of Europe, OSCE and other international organizations must be held responsible for their inability to influence Russia.

The West seems to be content with its concerns about the situation in Chechnya. Meanwhile, to support the international institutions’ interest in the upcoming referendum, the Russian Interior Ministry, in cooperation with various special services, organizes charter flights for experts of these organizations, who, understandably, note that progress is being made. Nevertheless, both sides retain their own opinions, which is called “constructive interaction.” Only in rare cases do Russian leaders begin to worry----when some European politicians begin debating the necessity of establishing an International Court for Investigating Military Crimes in Chechnya.

As a result of Russia’s attempts at peacefully regulating a crisis by applying democratic procedures, the referendum is turning into a public farce; however, it must be stated that the joint author of this has been the entire international community.

Realistic and unrealistic rewards of the referendum

The active role played by Akhmad Kadyrov, head of the Moscow-backed Chechen administration, in preparing the referendum suggests that he will be rewarded after the election. Yet, all his efforts at accomplishing this endeavor are no guarantee that the Kremlin will end up supporting him. It should be noted, however, that under the current situation Kadyrov has increased his political capital as much as he could, not only challenging the Russian politician of Chechen descent Aslanbek Aslakhanov, but also his protégées. Kadyrov´s ambitions go hand in hand with various harsh statements directed at the federal military forces and are part of a political performance that will begin on the eve of the referendum. As far as loyalty to the Russian constitution is concerned, only Abdul-Khakim Sultygov, President Putin’s special representative for securing human rights and freedoms in Chechnya, can compete with Kadyrov.

Despite that the Chechen constitution was drafted in accordance with the federal constitution, it is assumed that Kadyrov wrote the final draft. Yet none of its projects are subject to serious discussion as long as the Chechen issue is not resolved. The fact that the first referendum held in Chechnya should concern the republic’s status has been ignored by some politicians, who have simply set it aside in favor of legalizing their own powers.

It actually makes little sense to analyze the Chechen constitution since it is the same as the Russian one; nor will its adoption guarantee any security for its citizens. The only interesting part of the draft is its preamble, which mentions “firm unity between Russia and Chechnya, their common history, and a legacy of living in peace and harmony.” One of the draft’s provisions stipulates that the Russian President can terminate the rights and powers of the Chechen President. This effort to please the Kremlin surpasses all expectations; no other entity within the Federation has managed to sink so low.

The Russian authorities’ promises, made prior to the referendum, will hardly result in a huge turnout at the polls. People are not all that eager to vote, especially since the result is a sure thing. Russia’s prestige, though, is at stake as is the future of many Russian officials, plus the so-called Chechen initiators.

The Chechen people will only be satisfied when some of the Russian troops depart, when dozens of checkpoints are removed, and when purges and arrests of civilians cease. The Russian Prime Minister’s statement that “solutions will be adopted as soon as possible to compensate those who lost their homes in Chechnya as a result of actions taken to resolve the crisis” was the best promotion for the referendum. When describing the rosy life envisioned in Chechnya following the referendum, top Russian officials, including the President, are generous with promises. However, the most vocal are those who already see themselves as presidents, ministers and members of parliament within the new Chechen government.

Holding a referendum during an armed conflict, and ignoring Chechen public opinion, makes its results questionable. The constitution’s legality and selecting representatives for the Chechen government based on laws adopted as a result of special measures will not sit well with the international community in general, and the Chechen people in particular. Restoring a Russian constitutionality in Chechnya on March 23, represents a questionable breakthrough in the Russian-Chechen conflict.


Musa Tumsoyev is a regular contributor to Prague Watchdog.

(P,O/E,T)

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