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Analysts Question Whether Referendum Will End Chechnya Conflict - 2003-03-28

Russian President Vladimir Putin says Chechnya will receive what he calls the "broadest autonomy", following a referendum Sunday in which Moscow says Chechens nearly unanimously reaffirmed their desire to be part of Russia. But the real question is will this be enough to end years of bloody fighting that has claimed around 200,000 lives?

President Putin has called on officials of Chechnya to draft a law on amnesty for rebels and to lay the groundwork for providing a wide degree of autonomy for the war-torn republic.

The call comes days after a referendum in which Moscow says nearly 96 percent of Chechen voters approved a draft constitution that places the republic under the Russian federal government.

Moscow says nearly 90 percent of the 500,000 eligible Chechen voters cast ballots.

The referendum itself and the results are controversial. Western countries and most international bodies did not send election observers in order to avoid endorsing the poll's validity. Human rights groups and journalists expressed skepticism at the high turnout. Chechen rebel separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov denounced the vote as a "farce."

At a recent discussion in Washington, Anne Henderson, of the U.S. Institute of Peace, says rebel rejection of the results means that bloodshed in Chechnya may not be over.

"No rebel groups have announced any intention of laying down their arms as a result of this referendum," she said.

Glen Howard of the non-governmental group, American Committee for Peace in Chechnya, says Sunday's polling was old fashioned and that Moscow's greatest mistake is not negotiating with the rebels.

"The referendum was very much similar to the days of the Soviet period, when we saw the happy Soviet workers going off to vote," he said. "In Chechnya, you're seeing the same thing, with all these happy Chechens going off and very much happy to be part of living in Chechnya, and they're eager for the war to end. But until you start talking to the people with the guns, the situation is just going to go nowhere."

The U.S. State Department's Mike Morrow says Washington has questions about the vote, but is encouraged by the lack of apparent violence. He says the U.S. government hopes the referendum can be a starting point for political change in Chechnya.

"The chances of success will largely depend on how the Kremlin follows up," he said. "The follow-on [Chechen] presidential and legislative elections will have to be free and fair. Serious reconstruction and compensation must be undertaken. And Moscow will need to make good on its talk of dialogue and amnesty and human rights accountability."

Zaindi Choltaev, a Chechen, is currently a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. In 1996, he resigned from the Chechen government because of disagreements over its policies regarding human rights violations.

"There's not one single Chechen family that has not been touched by the violence, by the counter-terrorist activities that have been taking place in the previous years," he said. "And simply, the Chechens cannot forgive the Russians for that."

Chechnya's off-again, on-again fighting has killed about 200,000 people and displaced 350,000 over the last decade. Large portions of the capital, Grozny, have been destroyed.

For President Putin, trying to defuse the hatred and put an end to the fighting will be an uphill battle. Calls for amnesty and autonomy are a beginning. Human rights concerns also apparently are being addressed.

The Itar-Tass News Agency reports that a high-profile human rights case involving Russian Colonel Yury Budanov is scheduled to be re-tried April 9. The Russian Supreme Court overturned an initial verdict that cleared Colonel Budanov of responsibility for murdering a young Chechen woman in 2000.

Meanwhile, the Russian government celebrated the referendum by granting 10,000 rubles, or just under $320, to the parents of each of the 103 babies born on Chechnya's Constitution Day, which it has declared a holiday.