With the world riveted on the prospect of war in Iraq, the Russian government plans to hold a referendum in Chechnya that the Kremlin hopes will solve its Chechen problem once and for all. But the move is little more than pretend democracy to legitimize its bankrupt and brutal policy.
The March 23 question for Chechens will be whether to adopt a new constitution written in Moscow. The document is intended to replace Chechnya's old constitution, previously recognized by Moscow, that was the basis for the 1997 presidential election endorsed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Therein lies the trap.
In the improbable event that a majority of Chechens freely votes "yes" in the referendum, Chechnya's legitimately elected president, Aslan Maskhadov, would be de-legitimized. Maskhadov has been on the run and in hiding ever since Moscow declared him an outlaw at the beginning of the second war in Chechnya in 1999. The new constitution would legitimize a Kremlin-sponsored puppet regime in the republic.
Should the U.S. see through this artifice and protest, the Kremlin has a sweet deal in mind. Relations between the United States and Europe are strained because Washington is pressing its case for quick military action to disarm Saddam Hussein. Should Russia come aboard, it could greatly boost the U.S. cause in Europe.
Thus, in exchange for Washington's silence on Chechnya, Russia might be willing to reconsider its opposition to a U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing a swift military move against the Iraqi dictator. Chechnya, it seems, would be a small price to pay for the prize of stability, security and even democracy in the Middle East.
The reality is that the Kremlin is running out of options. After nearly four years of brutal fighting, the Russian army has failed to defeat Chechen fighters. It is hunkered down in its encampments. Russian soldiers dare not leave their bases at night. Worse, demoralized and ill equipped, Russian soldiers are reportedly selling weapons to the rebels, looting and kidnapping Chechen civilians for ransom.
The Russian government has ruled out negotiations with Chechen opposition groups after Chechen terrorists seized a Moscow theater last October and took more than 700 hostages. The incident led to 129 hostage deaths, most of them from a gas used by Russian forces when they stormed the theater.
The U.S. State Department's decision to add three Chechen groups to its list of foreign terrorist organizations bolsters the Kremlin's refusal to negotiate with terrorists. The announcement lends international credibility to Moscow's claim that the war in Chechnya is part of the global war on terrorism, and one doesn't negotiate with terrorists.
Unable to win the war and unwilling to negotiate for peace, the Kremlin has reached an impasse. But Vladimir V. Putin, who rode to the presidency on a promise of military victory in Chechnya, needs something to show the Russian people that he is making progress, especially with 2004 elections nearing. His political advisors, aware that the United States has many other, more pressing foreign policy distractions, apparently settled on the referendum.
Russia can get away with such a cynical tactic only because Chechnya is forgotten and isolated. Access to the republic is tightly controlled; news of conditions there has slowed to a trickle. Furthermore, at the end of 2002, the Kremlin refused to go along with the renewal of the OSCE mission in Chechnya. International observers have concluded that the security environment in the republic is so dangerous that it would be impossible to hold a legitimate referendum there.
Meantime, thousands of refugees are living in tents in cold and inhumane conditions. Brutal "cleanups" by the Russian military continue unabated; people disappear without a trace. Rape, torture and murder go unpunished because Chechens have been branded terrorists and are therefore fair game.
Like an ostrich with its head in the sand, the Kremlin can hide under its referendum. But it will not bring the war to an end. By force or manipulation, Moscow will get the votes it needs to declare victory at the polls, but neither the rebels nor the remainder of the Chechen people will be impressed. Instead, the Kremlin should return to its 1996 strategy, when it realized that the war was at an impasse and that negotiations with the rebels were the only way out. That requires people who can compromise, in Moscow and in Chechnya. The Kremlin's current approach denies them even a chance to be heard.