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Strong Turnout in Chechnya for Referendum

The new constitution would reassert Russian authority but promote some autonomy for the republic. Opinion polls predict easy passage.

March 24, 2003|David Holley and Mayerbek Nunayev | Special to The Times

GROZNY, Russia — Voters in war-torn Chechnya turned out in large numbers Sunday for a referendum on a new constitution designed to thwart hopes for independence in the separatist republic but pave the way for limited autonomy and peace.

About 80% of the 540,000 eligible voters had cast ballots by early evening, far more than the simple majority required to make the referendum valid, authorities said. Results were not due until today, but opinion polls projected easy passage.

Voters were asked to approve a constitution that reconfirms Chechnya as part of Russia and to endorse rules for electing a Chechen president and parliament.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has portrayed the referendum as an essential step toward peace, reconstruction and the withdrawal of troops who have been battling pro-independence guerrillas.

A key Kremlin goal is to delegitimize Aslan Maskhadov, who won Chechnya's presidency in 1997 during a three-year period when the republic enjoyed de facto independence and is now a top guerrilla leader.

"After adoption of the constitution, Maskhadov and his entourage will have zero political status. As of today, they are bandits or terrorists," said Abdul-Kerim Arsakhanov, chairman of the Central Election Commission of Chechnya.

Critics, however, argue that the referendum could make peace even more elusive.

"This war is evil, and instead of holding a phony referendum, all Chechens should be thinking about how to stop the war," said Movsar Kuduzov, 55, a former construction engineer who voted against the proposals. "A mere referendum cannot bring the sides to lay their weapons down. Something more serious, like negotiations, is needed."

Although Chechens enjoyed self-rule in their Caucasus republic after defeating Russian troops in a 1994-96 war, Russian forces returned in 1999 and have fought guerrillas since. By official count, about 80,000 troops and special police are stationed in Chechnya.

"The majority of Chechen people do not want or need this referendum. It is a big trick," said Markha Salgeriyeva, 47. "No one has been held liable for all those innocent Chechens who have gone missing. No one has shown to the mothers of those summarily executed and tortured to death where the graves of our children are."

But in this war-weary region, many long so deeply for peace that they are ready to take a chance on a fresh political start.

"I personally fought against the federal troops in the first war and do not regret it one bit. I still think I did the right thing -- it was my duty," said Usman Kerimov, 39. "But today there is only one way out of the impasse.... We do not have a moral right to continue the war against Russia because it will bring about the demise of Chechnya. We should lay down weapons and move back into the realm of law and order. This is the only way out."

Rebels had vowed to disrupt the balloting, and in the last week several polling stations came under arson, grenade or gunfire attacks. But officials of the Moscow-backed Chechen administration dismissed the incidents as the work of "hooligans."

Sunday's vote was free of violence, officials said.

Khasan Taymaskhanov, who headed referendum preparations, said the lack of guerrilla attacks Sunday meant that even the rebels realized "there is no other way for the Chechen republic and the Chechen people but to live with Russia, to live according to the law."

"It is obvious that if the rebels had wanted to attack polling stations or commit acts of terror, they would have surely succeeded," he said.

But Pavel Voshchanov, a prominent political analyst, said he saw "no reasons to believe that the referendum will bring peace to the republic."

There are still guerrillas who "hide in the mountains, live in dugouts armed to their teeth and do not intend to strike any peace deals with the federal side," Voshchanov said. "These people are not ready to surrender their weapons. To them, whether the referendum has been held or not does not make any difference.... All the talk about the referendum being able to bring peace, unity and stability to Chechnya is nothing but a myth blown out of proportion for propaganda purposes."

Indeed, authorities had pushed hard for a "yes" vote, stressing that a new constitution would be the first step toward bringing life back to normal, and many voters accepted that argument.

"I want only two things: peace and stability in the republic," said Kheda Isayeva, 54, an unemployed doctor in Grozny. "I pin my hopes on the referendum."

Shops were ordered closed Sunday in an effort to boost voter turnout. Soldiers and police with assault rifles guarded polling places.

Two polling stations were also set up in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia, where tens of thousands of Chechen refugees live.

Alexander Petrov, an official with Human Rights Watch, said by telephone from Ingushetia that some might question the official turnout figures.

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