President Vladimir Putin was quick to claim overwhelming support for the referendum held in Chechnya on March 23 to give the impression that the ‘separatists’ have been defeated. He also wanted the Chechens to seem to approve a Kremlin-written constitution that reconfirms the republic as part of the Russian Federation, and likewise legislation providing for presidential and parliamentary elections. Describing the results as "above the optimistic expectations", Putin said that the vote showed that "from now on those who do not lay down arms are fighting not only for their false ideals but directly against their own people". He also asserted that the constitution would pave the way for peace and reconstruction. This was contradicted by human-rights groups, Council of Europe officials and Russian opposition figures, who had dismissed the idea of holding the referendum in the first place as impractical and illegal. They, like the Chechen activists, had argued–and continue to argue–that a country in the grip of war cannot organize a referendum, and that unless pro-independence Chechens are brought into the process, a ‘peace-plan’ offering limited autonomy and hand-outs from the Kremlin will lead to greater unrest, not peace.
According to Russia’s Central Election Commission, 80 percent of the 540,000 eligible Chechens voted, with nearly 96 percent endorsing the new constitution and only slightly fewer in favour of regional presidential and parliamentary elections. With ballots counted from 292 of 418 electoral districts, there were 318,437 votes in favour of the constitution (96.1 percent), the commission reported on its website. Only 8,500 (2.6 percent) voted against the constitution, according to the commission.
The Chechen election commission, set up by the Moscow-appointed government in Johar-Gala (Grozny), the capital, tried to explain this apparent zeal for a constitution that most Chechens have not read by saying that the Chechen people try to do their best once they have decided to do something. "It is the mentality of our people that once they set about doing something, they do it properly," said Abdul Karim Arsakhanov, the head of the commission. Arsakhanov did not say whether it was this same mentality that enabled pro-independence Chechens to humiliate the Russian army and the puppet government that he is part of. The 79,000 soldiers in Chechnya (1,000 were withdrawn in early March to give Russians the impression that the war is over), having failed to defend even the capital, proved their usefulness by voting in the referendum, and by abducting Chechens suspected of belonging to the pro-independence movement.
The Chechen mujahideen humiliated Putin in October, when they seized hostages in a theatre in Moscow, proving that they can take their fight to the Russian capital should they wish to, and in December, when they destroyed the government headquarters in Johar-Gala after overpowering Russian and local troops at checkpoints. Putin–who launched the second Chechnya war (as prime minister under president Boris Yeltsin) in 1999 to secure his election as president the following year–is launching the current peace plan to secure his election to a second term in the presidential poll in November 2004. To redeem his credibility in the Russians’ eyes, he needs to show that Chechnya is under firm Russian control and that the ‘separatists’ have been "put in their place".
This explains why the constitution on offer grants Chechnya a degree of autonomy less than that enjoyed by similar republics in the Russian Federation. Its first clause asserts that "the territory of the Chechen Republic is indivisible and an integral part of the territory of the Russian Federation." The constitution also grants Moscow the right to dismiss Chechen presidents of whom it disapproves. Putin’s desire to appeal to Russian nationalism also explains his refusal to consider either the postponement of the referendum or a ceasefire and peace-talks to which the Chechen pro-independence movement would be invited. More than 12 Russian human-rights groups and opposition parties signed an appeal a few days before the referendum, asking for it to be postponed until Moscow had arranged a ceasefire and opened unconditional talks with the Chechen mujahideen.
Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the Yabloko opposition party, explained at the time that he feared the situation "may even worsen after this referendum". To achieve normalisation, "there must first be a peace process, led by the Russian president, in which all warring sides are represented," he said.
But Putin dismissed all these appeals, including urgent requests from the Council of Europe, saying that he would not negotiate with "terrorists", who were on the run anyway. He then showed how determined he was to silence criticism of his policies by taking over independent television-stations and newspapers in Russia itself. But the Chechen mujahideen are just as determined to resist Putin’s "peace plan", with Maskhadov calling on the Chechen people to boycott the referendum, and on activists to disrupt it. That Putin knows the activists have the ability to do so was indicated when the government ordered security measures to be taken in Moscow itself at the time of the referendum.
It is clearly quite easy to rig a referendum, and Moscow has succeeded in doing so. But the world has seen how bogus such proceedings can be, and the Chechen people will not accept them merely because Putin tried to bribe them by promising compensation for loss of property during the decade-old conflict and by offering amnesty to those who lay down their arms. The ‘wide autonomy’ that he is offering is not likely to deceive anyone either
The real test will come when elections are held–if they are held at all–to elect a new president and parliament. The Chechens have shown that they can attack Johar-Gala at will, and carry out operations in Moscow itself. They will not allow country-wide elections to be held that they know will block the independence for which they have sacrificed so much.