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Chechnya Vote Is Said to Back Russian Federation

March 25, 2003|From Times Wire Services

VLADIKAVKAZ, Russia — President Vladimir V. Putin declared Monday that voters in the war-torn republic of Chechnya had overwhelmingly approved a new pro-Moscow constitution, but outside observers questioned the referendum and the long-term prospects for stability.

Election officials, citing incomplete results, claimed that 96% of voters had backed the constitution, which confirms the region's status as part of Russia. They said turnout in Sunday's balloting was 79%.

Moscow had advertised the vote as the start of a peace process for Chechnya, which since 1994 has had two wars pitting Russian forces against separatists and an interim period of de facto independence marked by lawlessness.

Critics said that no fair vote was possible in a war and that the only path to peace would be to negotiate with rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov -- an option Russian officials had ruled out.

Putin said the results showed a lack of popular support for the rebels.

Even as residents were voting for the new constitution, rebels were sending the message that they would not be ignored.

Fighters killed two servicemen and wounded 18, an official in Chechnya's Moscow-appointed administration said. In addition, two policemen were killed by a land mine and another was killed in an attack on a patrol, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Although the constitution confirms Chechnya is part of the Russian federation, many key questions remain unresolved, including how much autonomy Chechnya will be given.

The constitution calls for presidential and parliamentary elections in Chechnya, but it sets no deadline for them.

Hrair Balian, the leader of a fact-finding team sent to Chechnya by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said the referendum had "shortcomings," Russia's Interfax news agency reported.

In Washington, the State Department said it had questions about the conduct of the vote.

"We are awaiting further information," spokeswoman Melanie Anderton said, "particularly with respect to voter registration numbers, the participation of Russian military personnel in the voting, voting by displaced persons ... and the overall security environment during the voting."

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