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Chechens to vote on their future, but critics not sold

©Associated Press
March 22, 2003

MOSCOW -- Their homes in ruins and their children afraid to fall asleep, Chechens are being told they can bring peace to their bloodstained patch of southern Russia with the flick of a pen today -- a vote for a new regional constitution.

The Kremlin has advertised the referendum on the constitution, designed to cement Chechnya's place within Russia, as the key to peace. Critics contend that it cannot supplant negotiations with separatists and that no fair vote is possible during war.

Chechens are skeptical about the prospects for peace, but after a decade of war and lawlessness, many say they will try anything.

"We'll agree, as long as the war stops," said Manov Vakhabova, 41, a mother of six from Gudermes. "Our children don't sleep well. They are scared."

Russian forces fought an unsuccessful 1994-96 war against Chechen separatists. After the Russians' withdrawal, crime, including kidnappings, flourished and Islamic extremism gained ground. Troops returned in 1999 after rebel raids on a neighboring region and a deadly series of apartment house bombings in Russia that officials blamed on Chechen separatists.

Russian forces took control of most of Chechnya three years ago, but they suffer daily guerrilla attacks. The military strikes back at civilians with arbitrary detentions, torture and killings, human rights advocates say.

Rebels also target civilians: In December, suicide bombers destroyed the Chechen government headquarters, killing at least 70 people.

Gunmen and women wired with explosives seized hundreds of hostages at a Moscow theater Oct. 23, demanding Russian forces leave Chechnya.

Officials say the vote will at last put the region on the road to normalcy. "The referendum is peace!" proclaims a banner over a central street in Grozny, the Chechen capital. In a televised address to residents, President Vladimir Putin called the constitution "the foundation for a political settlement."

Little is said about the content of the constitution, drafted under the guidance of Akhmad Kadyrov, the chief of Chechnya's Moscow-backed administration.

Critics say voters are being asked to make the obvious choice between war and peace -- rather than a meaningful one about the type of government or degree of autonomy they want.

"People are being told, 'If you vote for the constitution, the war will stop. If not, it will continue,' " said Ruslan Badalov, chairman of the Chechen Committee for National Salvation.

Elza Khamayeva of Grozny said she did not know the details of the constitution but would vote for it.

"We are hoping," said Khamayeva, who has been living with her husband and five children in the family's kitchen annex since their house was destroyed in a 2000 bombing raid.

In poll this month of 1,051 Chechen residents by Moscow's Validata agency, 64.1 percent plan to vote today. Some 25.2 percent said they would not vote, while 10.7 percent were undecided. The poll had a margin of error of 3 percent.

Validata research director Sergei Khaikin said most Chechens view a yes vote as a vote to remain within Russia -- where 67 percent say they want to be.

The constitution says the region will be governed by a president and parliament and will follow Russian laws.

If it passes, Kadyrov becomes acting president. Presidential elections could be held six months later and parliamentary elections three months after that. However, the constitution sets no deadline for those votes -- raising the specter the Moscow-appointed administration could rule indefinitely.

Opponents of the referendum say only negotiations with the enemy can end the war. Yet Putin has ruled out talks with rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, whom he accuses of terrorism. Maskhadov was elected as Chechnya's separatist president in 1997 after the rebels gained de facto independence.

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