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#14 - JRL 7016
January 13, 2003
Authorities push ahead with 'useless' constitution
By Artyom Vernidoub

Chechnya will vote for its new constitution on March 23, the eve of Vladimir Putin's 3rd anniversary of coming to power. Even though the vote is still three months off the outcome is already being called into question by human rights activists. European observers have already stated they won't recognize the document's validity, saying the text of the constitution itself contains such unrealizable provisions like freedom of movement and the inviolability of the home.

On Friday the electoral authorities in Grozny completed processing signatures gathered in support of holding a constitutional referendum on the war-torn republic's constitution, along with the laws on electing the president of Chechnya and a two-chamber Chechen parliament.

The head of the republic's electoral committee Abdul-Kerim Arsakhanov told the press on Friday that only 910 of the 13,000 signatures had been recognized as invalid. According to Russian law the election committee was to set the date of voting so that it is held no earlier than three months ahead, yet no later than 100 days. The voting must take place on a Sunday and so the Chechen officials decided on March 23. It means the long-awaited referendum will be held three days prior to the 3rd anniversary of Vladimir Putin's landslide victory in the 2000 presidential elections.

Pro-Moscow Chechen officials have been looking forward to the day for over a year now. However, European human rights activists are threatening to mar the occasion. A day before the voting date was set, the head of the OSCE Assistance Group to Chechnya Jorma Inki charged that even now it is clear that the outcome of the vote would not be recognized as being valid by independent observers.

In the opinion of the OSCE observers, a referendum cannot be held in the republic, where there is an 80,000-strong military grouping still stationed and the problem of refugees remains unsolved. The human rights activists also raised questions about how those 13,000 signatures were gathered, prompting the republic's prosecutor Vladimir Kravchenko to make a statement refuting the allegations: ''There have been no complaints about violations, forced collection of signatures, or other unlawful actions.''

The OSCE's negative attitude towards the referendum could be explained by the Russian Foreign Ministry's move to terminate the mandate of the OSCE Assistance Group to Chechnya on the same terms on which it was issued under the reign of the separatists Aslan Maskhadov and Shamil Basayev. The group's mandate expired on December 31 and the sides were unable to agree on an extension. As a result, the mission has ceased its activities and must be closed by March 21, 2003. In other words, the OSCE activists will have to leave their office in the Znamenskoye village on the very eve of the referendum.

At the same time, Russian diplomats have moved to allow the OSCE officials an observer role during the vote, together with other international organizations. Though, most likely, the OSCE will choose to ignore the referendum in a pointed manner.

While human rights activists believe that holding the referendum is premature, the incumbent Chechen authorities insist that it should have been held in autumn last year. The draft of the Chechen constitution written under the direction of the Chechen administration chief Akhmad Kadyrov was ready in April. In summer it was forwarded to the Kremlin for consideration.

Then the problems began. First and foremost, human rights activists and prominent Chechen figures blasted a clause envisioning a residential qualification for presidential candidates in the republic. Under Kadyrov's draft, to qualify for the presidential post, a person must have resided in Chechnya for at least the past 10 years. Apparently, by introducing that provision into the text of his draft, the Chechen head had aimed to get rid of his rivals in the presidential race – Moscow businessmen Umar Dzhabrailov and Malik Saidullayev. It appears that only Maskhadov and Basayev could have qualified for the post, had the clause be included.

Yet, however strong Putin's support for Kadyrov is, he was not going to be rushed into things and despite the Chechen chief sticking to his promise to have the constitution adopted by November, the federal centre, in the person of the top electoral official Alexander Veshnyakov kept on postponing the referendum.

Grozny gave in after Moscow threatened to put off the referendum in Chechnya till the election to the State Duma (December 2003) and to hold the presidential election in Chechnya jointly with the election of the president of the Russian Federation (March 2004). In early December Kadyrov announced his decision to exclude the residential qualification clause from his draft, noting bitterly: ''I, personally, am in favour of the provision, because I am convinced that a person who was absent from the republic for a long time, cannot control the situation in full.''

On December 12, speaking at a solemn reception dedicated to Constitution Day, the Russian president signed a decree on holding a constitutional referendum in Russia's wayward province. The date was not set in the decree, but Veshnyakov reported on the same day that the voting would be held in March.

Chechnya immediately began to ready itself for the vote. Several days before the suicide bombers attacked the governmental compound in Grozny killing 72 people, the authorities distributed free copies of the constitutional draft throughout the republic. The document begins with the words: ''We, the multi-ethnic people of the Chechen Republic…''

The journalists then latched on to a clause banning slavery, but if one reads its provisions more attentively, one can see that it restricts not so much the rebels as the military, providing that a rebel may be arrested only under a court order.

The final version of the Chechen constitution basically repeats the general provisions of the laws of other Russian republics, but given the ongoing counter-terrorist operation, more than half of its provisions are infeasible.

For instance, Article 19 reads: ''Every person has the right to freedom and personal inviolability. No one may be held in slavery. Arrest, detention and holding in custody are allowed only by an order of a court of law.''

Article 21 guarantees the inviolability of the home. ''No one has the right to enter the home against the will of the persons residing in it except in cases stipulated by federal law, or under an order of a court ruling.''

Article 24 sounds equally impracticable, given the constant "mopping-up" operations and cases of extortion at checkpoints: ''Everyone who is lawfully staying on the territory of the Chechen Republic has the right to freedom of movement and choice of a place to stay and reside.''

The only way of ensuring all those clauses are observed would be to halt operations against the rebels, and withdraw the troops from Chechnya. If not, the constitution, which will undoubtedly be adopted unanimously in March, will share the fate as the Soviet Constitution, and last year's order by General Moltenskoi outlawing arbitrary cleanups.

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