Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered a constitutional referendum in war-torn Chechnya to pave the way for eventual elections.
The decree signed by President Putin Thursday gives the Moscow-backed Chechen administration one month to work out details of the referendum, which Moscow hopes will be seen as a sign of growing normalization in the republic.
According to the presidential press office, the referendum will ask Chechens to approve a draft constitution and laws on electing the republic's president and parliament.
The decree does not set a firm date for the referendum. But Chechen officials have said they would like to see it held next March or April, with elections to follow.
The decree also notes that Russia's Central Election Commission is ready to provide any help needed in organizing the referendum. But President Putin underscored that the anti-terrorist operation in Chechnya would not be compromised by the political moves. He also stood firm in his refusal to negotiate with Chechen separatists.
Word of the decree came as the Russian leader hosted a reception at the Kremlin to mark the Constitution Day holiday. In a steady snow, a few blocks away, human rights activists and various political party leaders staged the first organized anti-war protest in Moscow in more than a year.
Several hundred people waving banners reading, "Negotiations Now," and "Stop the Kremlin's Terrorism in Chechnya," turned out on Pushkin Square, a popular staging point for demonstrations in Moscow. Kirill Alexeevsky was among the protesters.
Mr. Alexeevsky said even President Putin says we need to stop the war. But still, he adds, he threw away 129 people in order just not talk about Chechnya. He was referring to the standoff at a Moscow theater in which 129 hostages died, all but two from the effects of a gas used by Russian special forces.
Mr. Alexeevsky says President Putin does not want to talk about peace so, he says, he continues the war.
Russia has been at war in Chechnya on and off since 1994, but pressure is growing on President Putin both at home and abroad to bring an end to the conflict.
Supporters of the referendum ordered by the president say they hope it will bring peace and stability to the republic at long last. But critics argue a referendum is meaningless without a resolution to the war.