Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 5

Did President Jacques Chirac of France endorse the Kremlin’s March 23 constitutional referendum during Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Paris? No, but the pro-Putin Russian media are trying to create the impression that he did–and Chirac’s apparently deliberate vagueness on the issue is lending itself to the Russian media campaign.

As reported by the Paris daily Le Monde, Chirac told his Russian guest on February 10 that “this conflict, for which the civilian population is paying such a heavy price, cannot be resolved by military methods. France hopes that your plan of a constitutional referendum will be a first step which will permit the start of a political dynamic toward the return of peace” (translated by Jamestown from the French original). After being filtered through the Kremlin-controlled Rossiski informatsiony tsentr (Russian Information Center), that statement emerged as the February 11 headline “Jacques Chirac considers that the referendum in Chechnya will lay the foundations for achieving peace.”

In its own article of February 11, Le Monde noted that Chirac’s statement “was made in a fashion which hardly risks offending the Kremlin” and that his formulation “risks being understood as giving France’s seal of approval to a referendum organized by the Russian army during a war.” That interpretation was echoed on February 13 by the Paris newspaper “Liberation,” which noted that the French authorities “had spared him [Putin] criticism about the conflict in Chechnya, contenting themselves with expressing pity for its civilian victims and with pleading for a vague ‘political solution.'”

Putin told a French television program on February 11 (as reported by the Russian news agency “Novosti”) that from now on Russia would try to settle the Chechen question only by peaceful methods, and that “therefore we have supported the initiative of conducting a referendum on a constitution for Chechnya.” In effect, he implied that the controversial referendum is the only possible alternative to war and thus simply the logical consequence of the pacific principles embraced by both Chirac and himself. The French president did not explicitly reject that logic, either during Putin’s visit or after his departure.

Thus Putin handled himself with considerably more finesse on this trip than he did during his November visit to France, when he invited a Le Monde journalist who asked unwelcome questions about Chechnya to come to Moscow and be circumcised. As the Russian website Polit.ru noted, this time “Putin was noticeably more politically correct,” even going out of his way to express good wishes to France’s Muslims.

Mayrbek Vachirgayev, who was once chief of staff for Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov and who now lives in Paris, told Jamestown in a February 13 telephone interview that Chirac had failed explicitly to oppose the referendum because of the “stupidly” optimistic statements about the referendum made by the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Alvaro Gil-Robles, during his recent visit to Russia. Vachirgayev predicted that after March 23 France would accept the results of the referendum, but also expressed hope that after the current Iraqi crisis is resolved the Chechen issue would enter a “new stage” with the West taking a stronger position.