Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 7

Moscow clearly wants Western observers to monitor the March 23 constitutional referendum in Chechnya as a symbol of its legitimacy, and also for those observers to concentrate on such purely technical questions as the physical preparation of polling stations, ballot papers and the like. And a joint mission of specialists from the OSCE and the Council of Europe is apparently prepared to meet that desire–at least in part. In a March 3 press release after its return from a five-day visit to Chechnya, the mission reassuringly reported, for example, that “ballot boxes are ready for distribution.” But the press release also included some more troubling items.

The visiting specialists found, for example, that “no groups have registered to campaign against the referendum. Consultative membership on election commissions is limited to Initiative Groups and a few other political organizations. As no such organizations have been registered in the Chechen Republic, the membership of election commissions may not be balanced.” With striking understatement, the press release called the lack of such officially registered opposition groups “understandable in the extremely polarized environment of the Chechen Republic.”

The visitors noted that “no group has been able to campaign officially against the referendum in the mass media or distribute literature arguing against the referendum. However, individuals representing political and other forces against the referendum have occasionally appeared on the Russian Federation as well as the Chechen Republic mass media to argue for non-participation or a vote against the referendum.” Seeming to ignore Chechnya’s pervasive climate of violence and intimidation, the press release stated that “this debate must continue freely and expand without overt or covert hindrance.”

In another understatement, the press release noted that “while federal and republic authorities are not allowed to take part in the campaign for or against the referendum, there is evidence to suggest that this prohibition is not enforced strictly.”

According to a joint press release, the pro-Moscow authorities are planning to set up “mobile ballot boxes” for refugees in buses to be parked on the border between Chechnya and Ingushetia. The release warned that “while many…may take advantage of this opportunity to exercise their right to vote, others may be reluctant for a variety of reasons to return to the Chechen Republic, even to the administrative border, and may be disenfranchised.”