Publication: Russia and Eurasia Review Volume: 2 Issue: 7

by Elena Chinyaeva

On March 23, a referendum took place in the war torn Chechen republic in the south of Russia. Voters were presented with three questions, involving: Approval of a draft new Constitution, a draft law on the election of the president, and a draft law on the election of the parliament.

Most foreign and many domestic observers were dismissive of the referendum, treating it as a farce, the last in a long line of failed Kremlin policies. Such commentary, however, underestimated the exhaustion of the republic’s inhabitants and the determination of the Kremlin leadership. It also underestimated the willingness of Chechen elites, especially the powerful Chechen diaspora business community, to work to rebuild the republic within the parameters set by Moscow. The mere fact that the authorities were able to pull off the referendum, despite separatist threats to disrupt the process, was itself something of an achievement.

Considerable effort went into a public relations campaign to create the right atmosphere leading up to the referendum, including even the publication of a collection of Chechen folk tales. Indeed, in the eyes of many observers the referendum results belonged in the latter category. A reported 89 percent of the republic’s adult population participated in the ballot, and two of the most remote and least controlled areas, Vedeno and Sharoi, were the most active. Of those who took part, a reported 95.97 percent approved the constitution–which stipulates that the Chechen republic is part of the Russian Federation.

Considering that the referendum occurred after more than ten years of armed conflict–during which the separatists demanded full independence from Russia–such results indeed seem straight out of a fairy tale. Or do they?

Preparing for the referendum, the authorities made a tireless effort to convince the Russian population in general, and that of the Chechen republic in particular (and perhaps themselves as well), that a positive outcome was the only means by which a solution could be found for the conflict. If a new constitution were approved, it would open the way for the election of the local legislature and a legitimate president. Until that time Akhmad Kadyrov would continue to serve as the Kremlin-appointed “head” of the Chechen republic.

These declarations were accompanied by numerous promises. On January 30, Stanislav Ilyasov, the federal minister for Chechen affairs, announced government plans to allocate 20 billion rubles (about US$600 million) to revive the republic’s economy. The money would also be used to rebuild housing and to compensate people for their destroyed homes. Ilyasov promised that the housing problem would be solved within five to six years.

Then, on February 27, Aleksei Kudrin, deputy prime minister and finance minister, reported that the authorities would start paying monetary compensation soon. The next day, Vladislav Surkov, the deputy head of the presidential administration, declared that Chechnya could become “partially independent” within the Russian Federation because a treaty specifying the division of responsibilities with the federal center would be drawn up. On March 14, Aleksandr Voloshin, the head of the presidential administration, said that the elaboration of such a treaty would start immediately after the referendum.

And finally, in a television address delivered on March 16, the Russian president himself appealed to the people of Chechnya to take part in the referendum. In the event that the constitution was adopted, he promised a special bilateral treaty that would grant Chechnya “broad autonomy.” Vladimir Putin said that the referendum was the only way for the people of Chechnya to decide their own future. At a meeting the next day with Chechen religious leaders, he also said that, if the new Constitution were approved, the declaration of an amnesty for those who “committed crimes during the antiterrorist operation in Chechnya” could be considered.

However, the days before the referendum were marked by intense gunfire in many areas of Chechnya. As reported by the Russian daily Kommersant, the night of March 22-23 was especially dangerous. Many poll stations were shot at. But the tactics of night terror apparently backfired. People were indignant at such intimidation. Most of the polling stations were located in schools, which is a tradition held from the Soviet times. Moreover, the schools were among the first buildings to be restored after the war. Such facts also worked against the attackers, in part because functioning schools created a sense of peace. By threatening to destroy this peace, the attackers left the locals with a simple choice–law of the night without peace or a Constitution that promised stability and functioning social facilities.

This was just the sort of dilemma that the federal center’s propaganda machine had been hammering into people’s heads: What alternative would be left to the people after years of heavy fighting, in a territory in which the infrastructure had been destroyed and local clans continued to war against each other? The three years of virtual independence that Chechnya had between the two Chechen wars, from 1996-1999, showed that local leaders could not maintain law and order in the republic. This failure of leadership was said to extend also to Aslan Maskhadov, who, with the support of Moscow, was elected president in 1997.

In order to create legitimate power structures in an unruly territory, the federal center had to start with something (a situation which the anti-Saddam coalition in Iraq will also inevitably face). And a referendum offering approval of a new constitution was a logical place to begin. Obviously, a negative outcome could hardly be considered an option. Fortunately for the authorities, the fear created by their opponents seems to have prompted many people to vote as they were told. There were also reports of people being threatened with the loss of pensions and other benefits if they refused to vote. It seems likely as well that the authorities resorted to what in Russia is known as the use of “administrative resources.” This often signifies simple ballot rigging.

At a meeting with Akhmad Kadyrov on March 27, Vladimir Putin confirmed his willingness to deliver on his main promises–a treaty on the division of responsibilities, amnesty and compensation for lost property. Moreover, he promised to do it not in five to six years, but in two.

With the referendum over, the task of creating political stability in Chechnya should become easier. And the election campaign has already started. Akhmad Kadyrov has announced his wish to run for the post of president, while the Chechen diaspora in Moscow has begun quarreling over who will support whom in the presidential and parliamentary elections, which could take place as early as December.

There is little doubt that, just as it did with the referendum, the Kremlin will exercise tight control over developments in Chechnya during the runup to the elections. After all, it was a loss of such control that sparked the conflict in Chechnya in the first place. The most important task for Moscow now is to pick the right candidate for the presidency. The Kremlin does not want to repeat the mistake it made with General Dzhokhar Dudaev, the late leader of Chechen separatists, who was initially sent to Chechnya in 1991 in order to safeguard Moscow’s interests.

It would be a cunning move by the center if it could lure Aslan Maskhadov–who is still seen as the leader of the guerrillas, though he hardly controls them–into participating in the elections. Maskhadov most probably would not be allowed to win, but his participation would seal the legitimacy of the electoral process. Moscow could sweeten the deal by offering him an important sounding position, or just a nice retirement package. That, after all, is precisely what the Tsarist government did to end its nineteenth-century war in the Caucasus. And Shamil, Russia’s main enemy and a legendary hero and fighter, ended up in central Russia living off a government pension and writing memoirs about his glorious past.

Elena Chinyaeva holds a doctorate in modern history from Oxford University and is a writer for Kommersant-Vlast, a leading Russian political weekly.