#12 - 7037
Financial Times (UK)
January 28, 2003
Constitution for Chechnya may divide instead of rule: Planned referendum on new legal framework in troubled republic has drawn mixed response
By Andrew Jack
Near the rubble of the pro-Moscow Chechen government headquarters in Grozny, blown up last month, people have assembled to argue for rapid adoption of a new constitution in the conflict-torn Russian republic.
"We've been living in a state without politics and outside the law for too long," says Boki Amayev from the local electoral commission, who is among those backing the government's plans for a March 23 referendum on the draft constitution.
To its supporters, the document represents an important step towards a return to normality in Chechnya after three years of fighting - and a decade of quasi-anarchy. To its critics, it is a hasty and inappropriate text, at best irrelevant to efforts to end the continuing conflict, of which the 82 deaths in the December blast were one more dramatic example. The debate has far wider implications. President Vladimir Putin himself has firmly backed the constitution, as a precursor to regional parliamentary and presidential elections as soon as the end of this year. He is using it to suggest a policy shift by the Kremlin from seeking a military to a political solution in the republic, as critics from abroad have long demanded.
Senior government officials have raised the stakes further by inviting international observers to witness the voting. In forcing foreign countries to take sides, they risk driving a fresh wedge into the awkward but improving relationship between Russia and the West. "It's very dangerous, and foreign countries will take a dim view of this approach," said one Moscow-based western diplomat. "I think Chechnya is going to come back as a bone of contention with Russia in 2003. The facts on the ground are impossible to contradict. This is the largest shooting war in Europe."
A first clash is likely tomorrow when the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, the intergovernmental human rights organisation, debates the issue in Strasbourg.
Lord Frank Judd, head of its political affairs committee, warned last Friday that the situation was not calm enough to allow for a democratic debate on the referendum, and that no observers should be sent for fear of lending authenticity to a process he called "meaningless".
In Grozny, the Chechen capital still dominated by bombed-out and bullet-holed buildings long after Russia claimed it back from rebel fighters, Khasim Taimaskhanov, head of the initiative group on the constitution, says the 112-article document was developed over the past 12 months through wide-ranging consultation with the local population.
Whatever the level of discussion, some see signs of progress in the referendum - after a long period during which Chechnya has been governed by military and security service officers and administrators appointed from Moscow. "As a step towards popular democracy, it has to be encouraged," says one foreign observer based in the region.
Like many other ordinary Chechens, Dr Alim Mitayev from the city's No. 1 hospital, says he will vote in favour, less from confidence than from a desperate hope that it will trigger change. "The most important thing is peace. If the referendum helps with normalisation, then why not?"
Those who endorse the Kremlin's approach argue there is little alternative. They see rebel fighters as bandits and internationally sponsored terrorists, and rule out negotiations with Aslan Maskhadov, who failed to control the republic after he was elected president in 1997, and whose credibility and authority were further undermined by his refusal to condemn last October's Moscow theatre siege.
Akhmed Kadyrov, the Kremlin-appointed president of Chechnya, argues that negotiations with "bandits" are impossible, and that a return towards peace is already being achieved through delegation to Chechens of policing and civilian administration. He points out that federal presidential and parliamentary elections in the past three years took place during a more much violent period than today.
But critics - including a growing number of Russian politicians - suggest that without broader efforts to reach beyond those in the circle of Mr Kadyrov, the violence will continue. Boris Nemtsov, leader of the liberal Union of Right Forces movement, denounced the referendum last month as "a complete farce".
There are concerns that details of the constitution are inappropriate to Chechnya. It envisages a federal-style presidential system, in a republic of rival clans. "We need a state council of elders drawn from the teips (clans)," says Vakha, who fled Grozny to the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia after his house had been bombed for the fourth time.
Others worry about the narrow franchise of the referendum. Only adult Chechens registered within the republic - which Mr Kadyrov's officials put at just over 500,000 - will vote. This excludes refugees and the diaspora in other parts of Russia, but includes more than 20,000 Russian soldiers "permanently" stationed in Chechnya.
More fundamentally, the speed with which the constitution has been drafted, and its refusal to grant even the degree of autonomy given to some of Russia's other ethnic republics, leaves little scope for creating a broader political dialogue that might draw in some of the less radical fighters interested in long-term peace.
As for ordinary Chechens, they consider much of the debate on the new constitution to be irrelevant amid continued torture and disappearances, which threaten to poison future generations. Medina, in the Staropromyslovkaya district of Grozny, says:
"We need the fighting, killing and theft to stop first."