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Putin Urges Chechens to Vote in Constitutional Referendum - 2003-03-17

Russian President Vladimir Putin is urging Chechens to vote in this weekend's constitutional referendum, saying it could help end years of bloodshed in the break-away republic.

The Kremlin press service published details of Mr. Putin's televised address to the Chechen people, during which he promised wide autonomy for Chechnya within the Russian Federation.

President Putin said the draft constitution represents the best chance for a political settlement of the Chechen conflict, which has pitted Chechen separatist fighters against Russian Federal forces in two separate wars dating back to the early 1990s.

Critics of the referendum say it should not be held as long as violence and intimidation continue in Chechnya. In apparent agreement, several international groups have said they will not send observers to monitor the voting, due to the poor security situation.

The Russian President acknowledged that rebel resistance to the March 23 referendum remains high, with some separatist forces threatening to disrupt the voting. But he urged Chechens living in the republic to make, what he called, the right choice and adopt the constitution.

The referendum will also ask voters to approve a series of laws related to eventual presidential and parliamentary elections in Chechnya.

President Putin said the Sunday referendum will mark a crucial step toward dealing with the devastation brought by two wars. He also promised federal authorities would work to restore the economy, give Chechen children the education they need, and compensate tens-of-thousands of Chechens who lost their homes as a result of the war.

Chechnya has operated under de-facto independence, since Russian forces abandoned their first Chechen campaign in failure in 1996. But the Russians returned in 1999 after a series of apartment building bombings in Moscow and elsewhere, that the Kremlin blamed on Chechen separatist rebels.

Russian officials have long maintained that federal forces have the situation in Chechnya under control, and that life there is returning to normal. But there are still nearly daily reports of skirmishes and violence.

President Putin scheduled the constitutional referendum after armed Chechen rebels stormed a Moscow theatre last October, taking hundreds of people hostage. More than 100 of the hostages died when Russian forces stormed the theater. The crisis brought renewed pressure on Mr. Putin to negotiate a political settlement for Chechnya.