Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 5

In another major victory for its policies in Chechnya, the Putin administration has now persuaded the human-rights commissioner for the Council of Europe to endorse its controversial referendum to ratify a new constitution for the republic. Alvaro Gil-Robles even embraced the date of March 23, insisted on by Putin but vigorously contested by European parliamentarians such as Lord Frank Judd. He has thus virtually guaranteed that Lord Judd will resign in the near future.

The Moscow daily Izvestia rightly noted on February 17 that the conclusions announced by Gil-Robles after his recent return from Chechnya are just what the Kremlin needs. As “the last high-ranking international official to visit the war-torn republic before the voting…his opinion may be considered the definitive verdict of Europe….one can consider it to be an advance credit of faith in Russia from the international community.” The newspaper noted the lack of “harsh criticism” of Russia’s policies from the Western diplomat.

As quoted by the Associated Press on February 15, Gil-Robles specifically linked the renunciation of war with the holding of the referendum–a favorite theme of the Kremlin’s. “I am convinced that the continuation of war and the search for a military solution is absurd,” he said. “For me, holding the referendum is a beginning.” The Russian news agency Novosti quoted him as calling on the Chechen separatists to lay down their arms: “If I had the chance to talk to separatist leaders, I would urge them to think of peace and the future of their people. I would advise them to stop using arms and put an end to their people’s sufferings.”

An interviewer with the Moscow radio station Ekho Moskvy told Gil-Robles that, according to the Izvestia account, “you talk exactly like the Russian authorities about the referendum.” The interviewer asked: “are there any nuances in your position in comparison with the official position?” of the Kremlin and of Moscow-appointed Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrov. In his reply the commissioner stressed that the referendum “is not the end of the process, on the contrary this is the beginning of the process.” But he nevertheless did not explicitly disagree with any of the statements made by the Russian authorities about the referendum.

On the other hand, Gil-Robles was credited by the website as winning one concession from Kadyrov: agreement to allow Chechen refugees in Ingushetia to take part in the March 23 voting without having to return to their war-torn homeland. The website stated that previously Kadyrov had considered these refugees to be, in Grani’s words, “spies for Maskhadov and secret terrorists.” But the website also observed that the most important thing for Kadyrov and Putin at this point is to get the West to recognize the referendum’s validity. “In this mysterious referendum which Kadyrov intends to conduct under the supervision of the federal authorities, he doesn’t need supporters but just participants; he will manage to do the vote-counting himself.”