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#13 - JRL 7016
New York Times
January 14, 2003
A Sham Referendum in Chechnya

Two brutal wars have devastated Chechnya over the past decade without resolving the essential issue of the status of the secession-minded republic within the Russian Federation. Vladimir Putin's plan to hold a referendum on a proposed new constitution in March, followed by new presidential and parliamentary elections, is superficially appealing, but falls short of the steps needed to bring the conflict to a democratic resolution.

The second Chechen war, now in its fourth year, is proving as destructive and futile as the first was in the early 1990's. Both sides have routinely violated human rights and let egregious crimes go unpunished. Russian brutality has intensified since last year's hostage-taking by Chechen terrorists in a Moscow theater and the deadly bombing of Russian offices in Chechnya last month. Chechen militias have behaved as reprehensibly, committing atrocities against Russian and Chechen civilians and accepting training and other help from foreign terrorists, including Al Qaeda. Their behavior has forfeited the sympathy Chechnya's historic grievances once enjoyed among Russian liberals.

It is in this context that the planned referendum must be judged. The idea that a fair test of Chechen opinion can be carried out in the present climate of intimidation is ludicrous. Doubts about the real nature of this exercise have been reinforced by the news that the petition authorizing the referendum obtained the required number of signatures only by including Russian soldiers stationed in Chechnya.

No serious effort was made to negotiate the new constitution with representative Chechens independent of Russian control. Its provisions seem to offer Chechnya less autonomy than other Russian republics already enjoy. Any government emerging from this flawed process is likely to be seen by Chechens as a band of Russian collaborators, not their own independently chosen representatives.

Mr. Putin's aim seems not to offer a real political opening but a stage-managed show aimed at convincing the outside world that the Chechen war is over and no longer warrants international concern. That would explain Moscow's precipitate attempts to dismantle refugee camps where Chechens have been seeking shelter from this unforgiving war. Those camps are, unfortunately, as necessary as ever. It also appears to be the rationale behind Mr. Putin's recent refusal to renew the human rights monitoring mandate of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Not just continued human rights monitoring but some effort to hold violators accountable is necessary for establishing an environment where fair elections can be held.

Mr. Putin should be encouraged to seek a political end to this war. He ought to begin by revising his unhelpful referendum plan.

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