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Last Updated:  Sunday, 23 March, 2003, 05:24 GMT
Chechnya faces fraught vote
By Nikolay Gorshkov
BBC correspondent in Moscow

Referendum poster alongside Mike Tyson poster
Putin hopes the referendum will bring normality
Chechens have begun voting in a referendum on a new constitution.

If approved it will enshrine Chechnya's status as an autonomous region within the Russian Federation and pave the way for presidential and parliamentary elections.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was swept to power three years ago on his promise to crush Chechen extremists, is hoping the referendum will introduce some kind of normality into the still unruly territory - in time for his re-election next March.

But critics say the war-torn republic is not ready for the vote.

They say the Kremlin is seeking to legitimise the Moscow-installed administration in Chechnya, instead of tackling human rights abuses and restraining its military.

'Big opportunity'

Sergey Yastrzhembsky, President Putin's chief adviser on Chechnya, has been busy rallying support for the referendum among the Chechens.

The referendum is a bluff - nobody believes in it
Giri Gudiev
farmer
"I guess the referendum is a big opportunity to the Chechen people to open the political process inside of the republic," he says.

It is a fairytale dream, critics say. Who is going to vote in this referendum? Hundreds of thousands of Chechens have fled their homes and are scattered across Russia.

Giri Gudiev is trying to rebuild a farm - and his life - in southern Russia.

He used to be a successful farmer in his home village of Bamut in Chechnya.

But he lost his sheep and tractors to bombs and looters during the war.

He does not want to go back, as he sees no future in Chechnya for his three children. "The referendum is a bluff," he says.

"Nobody believes in it. Being here, I have some access to information. But people back at home, they don't know anything."

Rebel appeal

The separatist leader, Aslan Maskhadov, still considered by many Chechens as their legitimate president, can only address his followers through the Internet, and taped messages.

Chechen refugees
Many Chechen refugees have not seen the draft constitution
He and his fighters have been pushed into the mountains, but they still claim control over large parts of Chechnya, at least by night.

And they warn the Chechens against taking part in the referendum for fear of attacks.

They have unlikely allies in some Russian and Chechen human rights groups, that have appealed for a boycott of the poll.

Blaze of publicity

Others, like Human Rights Watch are going to monitor it, but as its Moscow activist, Anna Neistadt, says, the Chechen problem cannot be solved by a referendum.

"While disappearances, sweep operations, summary executions, torture and looting continue in Chechnya there is no way to solve the problem," she says. "And a referendum is not going to change this."

Russian military units are being pulled out of Chechnya in a blaze of publicity.

In the run-up to presidential elections in Russia in less than a year, the Kremlin is keen to show some progress in Chechnya.

But critics are not persuaded by the tiny numbers of soldiers being sent back home.

Whatever the outcome of the referendum, they say, peace and stability in Chechnya are still a long way off.


SEE ALSO:
Call to scrap Chechnya poll
13 Mar 03 |  Europe
Q&A: The Chechen conflict
29 Oct 02 |  Europe
Profile: Chechnya
21 Jan 03 |  Country profiles


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