Officials - Voters back Chechen constitution

Tuesday, March 25, 2003

VLADIKAVKAZ, Russia -- Russian officials declared Monday that the approval of a new constitution by Chechnya's voters has completely discredited the separatist cause, further dimming hopes the Kremlin would negotiate an end to the 3 1/2-year war.

The constitution, which confirms the region's status as part of Russia, was overwhelmingly approved in a referendum Sunday.

The Kremlin had advertised the referendum as the beginning of a peace process for Chechnya, which since 1994 has experienced two brutal wars pitting Russian forces against separatists and an interim period of de facto independence marked by lawlessness.

Critics said no fair vote was possible in a war and that the only path to peace would be to negotiate with rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov -- an option Russian officials previously ruled out.

With ballots counted from 292 of 418 electoral districts, 96.1 percent of votes were in favor, Russia's Central Election Commission reported on its Web site. Only 2.6 percent voted "no," the commission said.

Officials said more than 79 percent of the 540,000 eligible voters had cast ballots, though Central Election Commission chairman Alexander Veshnyakov later said some refugees who were not on voter lists were allowed to cast ballots.

Rebels efforts stunted

President Vladimir Putin said the referendum results showed a lack of popular support for the rebels.

"All those who have failed to lay down their arms so far are now fighting not only for their false ideals, but directly against their people," Putin told his Cabinet. "Their actions directly contradict the interests and will ... of the Chechen people to live in peace."

Putin's envoy in southern Russia said the vote should put an end to all discussion about reviving talks.

"As to talks with Maskhadov and other representatives of bandit formations, this question has been dropped from the agenda," the envoy, Viktor Kazantsev, said.

Even as residents were voting for the pro-Moscow constitution, the rebels were sending the message that they would not be ignored.

Over the past 24 hours, fighters killed two servicemen and wounded 18, an official in Chechnya's Moscow-appointed administration said. Two policemen were killed by a land mine and another was killed in an attack on a police patrol, the official said on condition of anonymity.

The constitution confirms that Chechnya is part of the Russian Federation. However, many key questions remain unresolved, including how much autonomy Chechnya will be given.

The constitution calls for presidential and parliamentary elections in Chechnya, but sets no deadline for them. Veshnyakov said Chechnya's presidential vote could be held alongside Russian parliamentary elections in December.

Polling stations were attacked in the week before the plebiscite, but security was heavy Sunday and no major violence linked to the referendum was reported.

Hrair Balian, the leader of a fact-finding team the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe sent to Chechnya, said the referendum had "shortcomings," the Interfax news agency reported.

Russian forces returned to Chechnya in 1999 after rebels raided a neighboring region and after deadly apartment-house bombings in Russian cities that the Kremlin blamed on rebels.

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