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Chechen refugees in the dark on constitutional referendum
January 23, 2003

Chechen refugees crammed into camps in neighbouring Ingushetia said Wednesday they have been told nothing about and have little faith in a new constitution promoted by the Kremlin as the first step to peace in the war-torn republic.

"Nobody official came to us" to explain the March 23 constitutional referendum that could cement separatist Chechnya's status as a Russian republic, said Movsar, 48, who has been living in the Karabulak camp for nearly four years.

"I don't see what good could come of the referendum," he said. "As long as there is no peace, no guarantees of security, I will not vote." Nearly 4,000 people live in the crowded tent camp at Karabulak, sharing the muddy grounds with chickens and stray dogs, often living without gas and running water.

Visiting European envoy Frank Judd said one of the main purposes of his fact finding mission to the region was to ensure that local officials included the 65,000 people forced to flee Chechnya by the war in the referndum vote.

But local officials, including Chechen administration chief Akhmad Kadyrov, have said they do not see how they could include the 48,000 Chechens that do not live in the tent camps, but in private homes around Ingushetia.

"They don't tell us anything here," said Kyury, a 38-year-old Chechen who fled his homeland soon after war broke out between Russian forces and separatist rebels in October 1999.

While most refugees here said they had heard news of the referendum on television, Kyury said he learned about the vote from a friend who had visited Grozny, Chechnya's crumbling capital.

"I think it's a very good thing," he said. "If they give us some rights, some sort of status, then things will get better."

But others scorned the Kremlin proposal, calling it a fig leaf aimed at hiding Russia's futile military campaign which still see daily deaths on both sides amid bloody guerrilla raids on federal positions.

"It would have been better if they got some order first in Chechnya," grumbled Vakha, 42.

A man standing next to her agreed: "We need order there, they still kill people there."

"That's what (President Vladimir) Putin and the leadership should think about, instead of showing the world this pretty picture," he said.

The constitutional referendum -- which, if approved, would be followed by presidential and legislative elections -- is the latest step in what observers say is a campaign by the Kremlin to prove that the situation in Chechnya is under control.

It follows last year's controversial decision to close all the tent camps in Ingushetia, which prompted an outcry from rights groups who said that the refugees would be forced to return home to an ongoing war.

But Ingush President Murat Zyazikov told Judd, envoy to Chechnya for the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), that the Kremlin's earlier decision to close all the camps by the end of 2002 had been called off.

"There is no longer a deadline," Zyazikov told Judd during talks at his ornate presidential palace in Nazran. "It simply doesn't exist."

"No one knows how long they will stay in the Ingush republic -- only they know how long," he said.

Thousands of refugees fled the camps after authorities began closing them late last year, but Russian and Ingush officials have denied rights groups' claims that they were forced to return against their will.

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