- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Russian authorities yesterday praised the vote on a new constitution in the breakaway republic of Chechnya as a success, but outside experts questioned the legitimacy of Sunday's referendum.
The turnout for the Kremlin-sponsored referendum, according to Russia's Central Election Commission, was 79 percent, with voters overwhelmingly approving the new constitution that reiterates Chechnya's status as part of Russia.
"We re-established territorial unity of the Russian federation, because Chechen people have made their choice to be part of Russia in a democratic way," said Evgeniy Khorishko, spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington.
However, analysts and human rights groups raised doubts about such a high voter turnout.
"It's highly suspicious that in rural mountain areas, where traditionally people have strong anti-Russian sentiments, as much as 70 percent of voters turned up to cast ballots," said Zaindi Choltaev, a former Chechen government official.
Mr. Choltaev said it was against Russian law to hold the referendum during a state of emergency.
"If there is no emergency state, what do 80,000 heavily armed Russian troops do in Chechnya?" he asked.
The conduct of the referendum was not flawless, according to Mark Toner, spokesman for the U.S. State Department's Office for Eurasian Affairs.
"We have some question with respect to photo registration numbers, the participation of Russian military personnel in the voting, voting by displaced persons in Ingushetia and overall security environment during voting," he said.
Human rights groups also said they were concerned that thousands of Russian troops voted in the referendum.
Mr. Khorishko, the Russian Embassy spokesman, said that only the citizens of the Chechen republic participated in the vote.
"Troops are not permanent residents of the Chechen republic, so to say that they participated in the vote is nonsense," he said.
Mr. Choltaev called the recent referendum in Chechnya an example of pseudo-democracy because people were forced to choose between the vote and the war.
He also said he was skeptical about presidential elections in the republic because any candidate apart from the one supported by Moscow would have little chance of winning.
"It's just the window dressing. They are trying to make a situation appear as in the Soviet times, but the conflict is far from over," said Glen Howard, executive director of the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya.
However, even the critics of Russian policies in Chechnya said that people in that war-torn republic are so exhausted that they would vote for anything to end the fighting.
"People are facing despair in Chechnya. They are looking for anything that could help the situation," Mr. Howard said.

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