The results of a referendum hold out hope for an end to the bloody conflict that has ravaged the Russian republic of Chechnya. Overwhelming support for continued affiliation with the Russian Federation was as much the product of hope as resignation.
Dreams of peace will only be realized if Moscow seizes the opportunity, reins in its lawless soldiers and provides a real measure of autonomy to local leaders. Last week’s vote is a window of opportunity, but it may quickly close.
There has been savage fighting in Chechnya for nearly a decade. The predominantly Muslim province won de facto independence from Russia during a bloody war that was fought from 1994-96. Neither side showed respect for the other: Russian troops showed no mercy to Chechen civilians — thousands have been killed — sparking international outrage and condemnation. Chechen rebels responded with terrorist attacks against Russian civilian targets, allegedly even bombing apartment blocks in Moscow, although rebel involvement has been questioned. Russian troops returned to the province in 1999, after the Moscow bombings, but they failed to pacify the area and came increasingly under attack.
The government of Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to prefer to wait out the rebels by waging a war of attrition, but the Chechen guerrillas’ seizure of a Moscow theater last October, which resulted in the deaths of 130 hostages, apparently convinced the president that such a policy was unsustainable. Mr. Putin likely also has an eye on the U.S. campaign against Iraq. Russia has a Muslim population of 20 million, and the wily president may have calculated that he had to act before the war against Baghdad angered the Chechens enough to step up their campaign and eliminate any hope of a settlement.
Seizing the opportunity, Mr. Putin offered the Chechens a referendum that exchanged considerable local autonomy and substantial financial support for support for a new constitution that tied the republic to the Russian Federation. Organizers estimate that nearly 80 percent of the 540,000 eligible voters turned out — a simple majority was required to validate the results — and with most of the votes in, 96 percent were in favor of the constitution. Some Chechen independence supporters and human rights activists alleged fraud and intimidation; international observers conceded the vote was not problem free, but gave the ballot passing marks.
The referendum results get Mr. Putin halfway to his goal. No matter what the motivation of the Chechen voters, the ballot sidelines rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, who claims to speak for the Chechen people. The Moscow government has refused to recognize Mr. Maskhadov, who said he was stunned by the result. Mr. Maskhadov claimed his position by virtue of his ability to speak for the aspirations of the Chechen people. A new Moscow-supported government that does just that will be able to supplant the rebel leader.
Genuine success requires three things. First, Moscow must devolve power to the Chechens themselves, and establish political institutions that represent the Chechens rather than serve as the local arm of an occupying power. Second, Moscow must stop the abuses perpetrated by the Russian military on the Chechen people. Massacres and human rights abuses have taken place because Russian troops have known they could act with impunity. That must end and soldiers — and their leaders — must be held responsible for their acts.
Finally, Chechnya must be rebuilt. Ending the violence is not enough. The Chechen people want to see their lives restored. That means finding funds to reconstruct the Chechen economy. Given Russia’s own economic difficulties, it is unlikely that the money will come from Moscow. Islamic organizations are likely to pitch in, as should European governments that have supported the Chechen people during the last few years. In this, Russia should be as much “hands off” as hands on: if there is no check on the corruption and misuse of funds that has been prevalent elsewhere in the country, there is no hope for Chechnya.
The involvement of Islamic organizations should spur other groups to get involved to check the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. The Chechens have become a rallying point for Islam because they have been so ill-treated by Moscow. This referendum offers Moscow a chance to undo the horrific wrongs perpetrated against the Chechen people during the last decade. It can also eliminate a grievance that the Islamic world holds against the West. The Chechen people have shown their desire for peace. It is now up to Moscow to reciprocate.
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