Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 9

In a March 16 television speech devoted entirely to this weekend’s constitutional referendum in Chechnya, President Putin hinted at new concessions to Chechen public opinion. But he did it in such a way as to avoid making any detailed commitments. The state-controlled Russian television network broadcast the speech in full that evening to Chechnya, and then to the entire Russian Federation on the morning of March 17.

Repeating previous statements by subordinates, Putin said that Chechnya would have “wide autonomy” within Russia but provided no details about just what that would mean. He also seemed to acknowledge the validity of some of the accusations leveled by Chechen civilians and international human rights advocates against Russian troops, although a close reading of his remarks shows that these concessions were carefully hedged.

“The constitution will give the people of Chechnya the possibility to arrange their lives on their own, and to realize that broad autonomy, within the structure of Russia, about which so much is now being said. For this goal a special treaty between the Federation and the republic will be jointly prepared and concluded,” the president said. He offered no further details about the provisions of such a treaty, nor did he discuss the seeming contradiction between this idea and the overall policy of his administration, which has been to curtail such special, bilateral agreements with other Russian regions.

Putin observed that “a reduction in checkpoints has begun.” That implied, but without offering any guarantee, that the reduction would continue after the referendum. “In those places where they remain,” he said, the checkpoints “should not concern themselves with shake-downs of the civilian populace but should perform a quite different task, the fight with crime.” That such shake-downs have been routine practice was thus implied but not directly admitted. Indeed, on this issue as on others, Putin avoided any clear acknowledgement that the Russian state under his and his predecessor Boris Yeltsin’s leadership was specifically responsible for any atrocities in Chechnya.

For example, the president said that “the simple Chechen people have paid with their sufferings for the prolonged period of clan warfare, of struggles for power and for money…Your fathers and grandfathers endured the injustice and tragedy of the Stalinist deportation. All the weight of forced migration fell on the shoulders of the people–an exile which cost many Chechen lives. Ordinary Chechens must now restore their destroyed economy, revive their national culture.” Apart from the reference to Stalin, Putin avoided linking mass suffering or economic destruction to more recent Kremlin actions.

Where Putin did specifically accept federal responsibility for wrongdoing in Chechnya was on the issue of corruption. “The federal government has already earmarked significant resources for helping the republic,” he said, “…knowing that in connection with this the federal government and the republican administration both have serious questions to answer. Many of the problems in the course of restoration work arise from bureaucracy and corruption.”

In a March 17 meeting with Chechen religious leaders, Putin admitted that “in the last ten years very many mistakes were made, including mistakes by the federal center.” But Putin himself has only been in power for three of those years. And he has already labeled some of Boris Yeltsin’s decisions, such as the 1996 peace treaty with Maskhadov, as mistakes.

At that same meeting Putin also dangled another tantalizing but vague incentive for a “Yes” vote in the referendum: If the outcome on March 23 is positive, he said, Moscow would consider a “proposal for an amnesty” in Chechnya. But the proposal would be submitted to the Duma, with no guarantee that it would be enacted.

Would Putin follow up his televised appeal with a dramatic, last-minute personal visit to Chechnya just before referendum day? On March 13 the president’s chief of staff made just such a surprise visit, feeding speculation by Gazeta.ru and other observers that the president himself might do likewise on the eve of the referendum.

Aleksandr Voloshin confirmed that there would indeed be a bilateral treaty between the republic and the central government, though he also made it clear that the Putin administration does not like such treaties. “In general, we are trying to reduce the number of such treaties in Russia, as there are always those who are unhappy with the distribution of powers,” he said. “But Chechnya is a special case.” He declined to provide any details about the treaty, guaranteeing that Putin would have a completely free hand after the referendum.

Gazeta.ru correspondent Artyom Vernidub expressed skepticism about Voloshin’s hints of autonomy. “What kind of flexible schemes of coexistence are Moscow officials talking about,” he wrote, “if even the Chechen leader, Akhmad Kadyrov, has no power to appoint the head of the republican government but has to accept the candidate nominated by the Kremlin? Most likely, the Chechen officials will treat Voloshin’s promises merely as campaigning ahead of the referendum. Besides, the head of the Kremlin administration made many other promises that cannot be perceived as anything but undisguised campaigning. For instance, he promised to earmark funds for the restoration of the drama theatre in Grozny.”

Kadyrov himself told Interfax on March 14 that he did not plan to ask for special status for Chechnya. “The Chechen people have had had to deal with sovereignty and independence enough in the past ten years,” he said. On the other hand, he also confirmed that the work of drafting a treaty between the federal government and Chechnya had already begun, and that he expected the document to be ready within six weeks to two months after a positive referendum vote. He said that Chechnya should enjoy tax breaks while its economy is being restored, but that it should have neither more nor fewer rights than other Russian regions.

Few Chechen households still have functioning television sets, but Kadyrov told Interfax on March 17 that Putin’s television speech had “resonated widely” in Chechnya. He said that the speech “was sincere, and each word came from the heart and soul.”