- The Washington Times - Monday, March 24, 2003

VLADIKAVKAZ, Russia Voters in Chechnya overwhelmingly approved a constitution yesterday that the Kremlin asserts will push the separatist region to peace after nearly a decade of bloodshed.
Results from 106 of 418 electoral districts showed more than 95 percent of voters there supporting the constitution, which cements Chechnya's status as part of Russia.
Russia's Central Election Commission said 92,496 persons in those districts voted for the constitution, while 3,025 voted against.
The turnout across the breakaway republic was 79 percent, much more than the simple majority needed to make the referendum valid.
The Kremlin and Chechnya's Moscow-appointed administration portrayed yesterday's referendum as a key step toward peace and a return to normal life in the region.
Since 1994, Chechnya has experienced two Russian invasions and an interim period marked by lawlessness.
Voters also were asked to approve legislation setting the stage for presidential and parliamentary elections. The legislation was receiving the same overwhelming support as the constitution, the electoral body said on its Web site.
The results "guarantee the irreversibility of the peaceful political formation of the republic," said Russia's minister for Chechen affairs, Stanislav Ilyasov, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.
"The Chechen people have determined their fate themselves," Mr. Ilyasov said.
But the plebiscite's approval still left many key questions unresolved, including how much autonomy Chechnya will be given or when the elections will be held.
Critics argued that a new constitution won't end the war and cannot replace negotiations with rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov. Russia has rejected talks with Mr. Maskhadov.
Human-rights groups have also questioned the legitimacy of any vote held in conditions of war.
The campaign urging Chechens to vote equated support for the constitution with peace.
"It's impossible to live without hope; that's why I came here," said Roza Alkhazurova, who voted in a refugee camp for Chechens in neighboring Ingushetia.
Russian forces returned to Chechnya in 1999 after Chechen rebels raided a neighboring Russian region and after deadly apartment-house bombings in Russian cities that the Kremlin blamed on the rebels.
Russian forces suffer daily casualties in rebel attacks, and continue to bomb and shell suspected rebel positions and conduct widely criticized search operations.
Polling stations were attacked in the week before the vote, but security was heavy yesterday and no major violence linked to the referendum was confirmed.
Hrair Balian, leader of a fact-finding team the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe sent to Chechnya, said, "the organization and conduct of the referendum were not without shortcomings," the Interfax news agency reported. But he said he hoped the vote would be a starting point for further change in Chechnya.
Monitors from the Commonwealth of Independent States, a Russian-dominated group of former Soviet republics, said the vote was fair despite what they called minor irregularities. They said these included the presence of armed, uniformed men at polling places, Interfax reported.
Thousands of Russian servicemen permanently stationed in Chechnya were eligible to vote and the vast majority did so, military officials said.

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