published by the
Institute for Democracy
in Eastern Europe
Dispatches from
No. 30, April 2003

People’s Hope Has Been Erased: April 2003

The Referendum: Before and After

The referendum held on March 23 became the bell-weather not only of the political situation in the Chechen Republic but also in Russia itself.

The referendum showed that neither the Russian leadership nor the temporary administration in Chechnya is ready for a realistic political resolution of the armed conflict that would have long-term historical perspective and bring actual stabilization in the Northern Caucasus.

The propaganda campaign, unleashed in the Russian mass media a few months before the referendum, stopped immediately after its so-called successful end. During this period, journalists were allowed to speak either well or nil about Chechens and especially nothing about actual contradictions between Chechnya and Russia. But just a few days after the referendum, the main Russian television channel showed a documentary film about the storming of the town Komsomoslk by federal troops, complete with an open display of inhuman treatment of prisoners and injured fighters on the part of the Russian soldiers. The author of the documentary excitedly spoke about how the federal forces in Komsomolsk destroyed 1,500 fighters. Similarly, official Russian mass media demonstrate the disinterest of the Russian leadership in a realistic solution to Russian-Chechen contradictions.

The referendum also showed the complete insolvency of the majority of registered socio-political movements and parties in the Chechen Republic. They were completely dependent on [Russian] financial sources and were unable to influence political opinion in Chechnya. The only political force in Chechnya actively participating in the referendum process was the Chechen department of “United Russia.” Notwithstanding its democratic slogans, this party is reminiscent of the Soviet Communist Party in its methods (most recently, it organized anti-military, anti-American actions in Moscow). The representatives of this movement conducted activist work in Chechnya and met with the clergy and administration leaders in various regions and towns. They had the ability to freely move throughout the Republic’s territory and organize meetings and gatherings. The representatives of “United Russia” actively and skillfully used administrative resources, the war factor and the legal illiteracy of the population. They promised peace, law, work, and material compensation in exchange for the population’s active participation in the referendum.

Other social and political movements and parties, including Aslambek Aslakhanov’s “The Union of Chechen Rebirth,” practically withdrew from participation in the referendum after officially supporting it and calling the Republic’s population to take active part in it. They did not trouble themselves with clarifying the political consequences of the referendum or with explaining the key moments of the New Constitution project. Thus, for a large part of Chechnya’s population, the referendum and the Constitution for which the people were supposed to vote remained “a thing in itself.”

There was little activity from Chechen NGOs in the referendum process. Of course, Chechnya today has practically no NGOs. Among those that exist, some NGOs are financed and controlled by Maskhadov’s administration, others by the Putin administration, and a third part works under the patronage of Moscow’s social and human rights organizations — in exchange for fully supporting their patrons’ positions in the Chechen crisis. It appears, however, that both Maskhadov’s administration and Moscow’s human rights organizations lost the information war to Russia during the preparation and conduct of the referendum in Chechnya.

rom the beginning, having taken a negative position in regards to the referendum, Chechen social organizations were unable to do anything, except for making scandalous announcements through mass media. There was no possibility to conduct an alternate referendum or to advocate a “no” vote to the referendum’s three questions. When it became apparent that the referendum — and falsification of results — was inevitable, there was no opportunity to organize monitoring of the referendum results either. And when the official mass media in Chechnya and Russia announced the results of the referendum, the human rights organizations were unable to challenge the falsification, despite how evident it was. According to the official results, about 60 percent of the population participated in the referendum, and 95 to 96 percent gave a positive answer to all three questions. In reality, no more than one-third of the population in Chechnya participated in the referendum, and this result was achieved in large part through constant pressure on Chechen residents from federal police and military forces.

The Situation Unchanged

In the end, the referendum had no major political affect on the situation in the Chechen Republic; nothing changed for the referendum’s supporters or its opponents.

According to the official results of the referendum, Chechnya became a legal subject of the Russian Federation. But there was no reflection of this in observance of the rights of its citizens. Just as before, Chechens lack elementary civil and human rights, both on the territory of the Republic and on Russian territory. The election campaign was most active not in Chechnya itself but in Moscow. Pre-election blocks were formed along with “shadow” minister cabinets. But no one can say for certain that the situation in Chechnya might not change at any moment given the unpredictability of Russia’s leadership.

Chechen society practically did not react to the beginning of the war in Iraq, although official Muslim clergy in Moscow all but called Russian Muslims to carry out jihad against the U.S. The Chechens have stopped believing in tales of Islamic solidarity.

The situation in Chechnya after the referendum has not changed much. Russian soldiers continue to demonstrate their unlimited power and their unwillingness to end the war. Before the referendum, the Russian commanders pretended to take out individual units from Chechnya. In reality, they were replaced and there was no actual reduction of federal forces in the republic.
Immediately after the referendum, a few explosions sounded in the center of Grozny. A few Chechen policemen blew up a radio-controlled land mine. Explosions of homemade land mines sound throughout the capital of Chechnya nearly every day. The situation in Grozny, and the republic as a whole, has returned to its familiar pattern. Various cross-fires take place regularly in different parts of the city, the mine-war continues, and terrorist acts are carried out against the representatives of the local government.

At the beginning of 2002, an announcement was made about a reduction of Russian check points in Grozny and before the referendum a few posts were taken down in the center of the city. In most cases, though, the posts are simply moved from the middle of the roads to the sides. Russian soldiers, who serve at check points, continue to extort money from car drivers. Soldiers will install check points on any major road to earn money. There is no security benefit from these posts. On weekends and holidays, drunken soldiers cause major traffic jams, blocking traffic, or open unnecessary fire at night.

The city is still under nighttime curfew. Russian soldiers fire without warning upon anyone standing in the streets during dark hours. Nearly every night, passers-by who are running late are either killed or injured in Grozny. Russian snipers sit on the roofs of high buildings; their actions are unpredictable.

Regardless of some rebuilding activities in Grozny (in the center), the Chechen capital still lies in ruins. Among the systems that do not work are drinking water supplies, sewers, and heat. Only some regions of Grozny have electricity. There is practically no housing reconstruction; people continue to live under inhuman conditions; apartments have no elementary comforts, no water, heat, or electricity.

Many homes still have mines within them; unexploded bombs, rockets, and missiles hang from walls and ceilings of many apartments. People often live in half-destroyed buildings, where a few apartments have preserved.

The city is completely unsanitary. The streets of Grozny are filled with construction trash, food and everyday waste matter; all roads are flooded with water, including the water from the city’s sewer systems. The central market is especially dirty; the only place where residents of Grozny and its surrounding towns can buy food products. Local rulers have attempted to bring order, but never finished the job. Food products lay on dirty, self-made shelves, next to heaps of rotting garbage that houses various homeless animals. The elementary rules for the preservation of meat product and fish are not followed. The city is in danger of the possible spread of epidemics. The sanitary-epidemiological services were reestablished in Grozny a long time ago, but they are unable to deal with the catastrophic situation within the city. The city’s drinking water poses no less of a threat to its residents. Residents of most regions collect water from wells that are often located far from their homes and apartments. The water in such well often contains gasoline, and sometime mixes in with sewer waters.

In no way have the medical services been improved during this time. As usual, hospitals do not contain the basics, and the sick are forced to pay both for treatment and medicines. There are many people in the city who suffer from very dangerous forms of chronic diseases. However, many hospitals deny those who do not have the money to pay for treatment.

The conduct and results of the referendum and the ongoing situation in the republic have finally erased people’s hope in the possibility for positive changes in the near future. Migration from the republic has increased sharply, especially to European countries such as Belgium, Holland, and the Czech Republic.

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Dispatches from Chechnya is written by correspondents in Chechnya and distributed in English by the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe (IDEE), a non-profit organization founded in 1986, dedicated to the promotion of democracy and pluralism in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. For more information about IDEE, its programs, and the situation in Chechnya, visit the IDEE webpage at To receive Dispatches by email, please contact IDEE at [email protected]. Eric Chenoweth and Irena Lasota, Co-Directors, IDEE.