Chechen Referendum Is Road to Nowhere

Tracking Moscow's policy-making toward Chechnya since September 1991, I can only conclude that someone in the Kremlin wants to set a world record for inconsistency.

Since Sept. 6, 1991, when the last Communist administration was overthrown in Grozny, Moscow has, successively, tried the following tactics: support the new regime; threaten it; land troops; retreat; negotiate and blockade; arm the opposition; bomb; declare victory; negotiate; bomb; declare victory; negotiate; surrender; support the new regime; ignore it; threaten it; bomb; proclaim victory.

Now, the Kremlin has a new plan: Impose a new constitution on Chechnya -- no one doubts that there will be a resounding "yes" vote in this Sunday's plebiscite in the absence of proper monitoring -- and proclaim that peace and security have been restored. The trouble is that since 1991 Chechnya has already had two constitutions, four parliaments (none of which went to full term) and half a dozen leaders -- two of whom still regard themselves as legitimate rulers of the republic. And none of a series of mutually contradictory documents defining its relationship with Moscow has ever been properly observed. Perhaps it is time for a rethink?

The fundamental problem is that all Russian plans to date have been shaped not by the political realities in Chechnya, but by a political agenda set in Moscow. So it is again with the new draft constitution, which will affirm that Chechnya is part of the Russian Federation and prepare the ground for electing a new Chechen president. There are two problems here already. The status of Chechnya is such a serious issue that it has been the primary cause of two wars. Chechnya has twice declared itself independent. Many will dispute the legality of this and others, myself included, the practicability or wisdom of Chechnya being an independent state. Chechnya's two periods of attempted independence from 1991 to 1994 and 1997 to 1999 were disastrous. In any real terms, the debate on Chechnya's independence is an entirely pointless one.

I need hardly point out, however, the absurdity of Moscow's position, which is simply to declare Chechnya is a full part of the Russian Federation and that the problem is solved. Thousands of Chechens have died trying to achieve secession from Russia, and hundreds more fighters are still prepared to die for that cause. Calling them misguided or "bandits" or "terrorists" will not make them go away. And even those Chechens -- a majority I suspect -- who reject the armed struggle against Moscow do not want to be fully integrated into a state that has sent bombers and heavy artillery against their towns and villages. As prominent Chechen politician Ruslan Khasbulatov -- an opponent of independence for Chechnya -- has said, Moscow cannot ignore the abyss it has created between itself and Chechnya: "A question should always be put to those who support the thesis 'Chechnya stays inside Russia.' So why did Russia kill two hundred thousand of our citizens?"

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As for the appropriate form of government for Chechnya, a glance at Chechen history, both old and recent, makes it clear that the republic is ill served by a vertical power structure.

Traditionally, Chechnya has never been a unified or monolithic place. It is a land of both plain and mountain shared by more than 150 teips or clans in several hundred villages. Its supposed capital, Grozny, was always a Russian city, and power was decentralized throughout the regions. Early Russian ethnographers labeled the Chechens' traditions of collective decision-making and lack of aristocracy a "mountain democracy."

Logically, therefore, Chechnya would do best from a parliamentary form of government in which no single leader was in charge and different politicians, regions and families could share power and make collective decisions.

Arguably, Chechnya set off on the road to ruin in 1991 when Dzhokhar Dudayev was elected president and flouted those collective traditions. Dudayev had spent his entire adult life outside Chechnya and imported many of his nationalist ideas from the Baltic States. His attempts at one-man rule divided Chechnya and never gave him full control of the entire territory he claimed to be his "state."

Dudayev's successor, Aslan Maskhadov was far more in tune with the public mood in Chechnya and more consensual. He was also -- although a vast number of commentators on Chechnya, both Russian and foreign, prefer to forget this -- the one and only legitimate and popularly elected leader Chechnya has had in its history, when he was voted into office in 1997. But Maskhadov's status as leader became, in the end, a trap for him: Both Chechen warlords and Russian politicians were happy to ascribe personal blame to him for what was actually beyond his control and shirk the responsibility themselves.

And now in Akhmad Kadyrov Chechnya has another leader more in the Dudayev mold (in fact, at one point the two men were quite close): bullying, jealous of his power and not interested in consensus. Kadyrov, in his way, is just as divisive as Dudayev and just as doomed to fail as Maskhadov. His only virtue seems to be his loyalty in the eyes of the Kremlin. Alarm bells about Moscow's dependence on Kadyrov should have rung last December, when suicide bombers attacked his government headquarters in Grozny, killing more than 72 people. The suicide attack proved how insecure -- both physically and politically -- Moscow's chosen government was. It also showed that the old anthropological deterrents that used to stop Chechens from fighting one another -- a fear of blood vengeance from your victim's family -- are being destroyed.

There are still threads of consensus under the surface in Chechen society. Men, whom outside analysts place in different camps, like Akhmed Zakayev, Khasbulatov and Salambek Khadzhiev, all command respect and agree on much more than they disagree.

Many of those who died in the December bombing were apparatchiks who had served in one government after another from Dudayev to Kadyrov. I remember in 1995, men supposedly serving the "pro-Moscow" government in Grozny swapping messages with friends in the "anti-Moscow" government in the mountains. Family and village ties were stronger than public political allegiances.

These old threads still help hold Chechen society together, despite the men of violence and the ambitions of would-be leaders like Kadyrov. But this constituency in the middle is weakening with every month that passes, as the war goes on.

For Moscow to accommodate this mass of ordinary Chechens, however, would require it to admit that it has failed them utterly over the past 12 years. It would entail admitting that it has lost Chechnya and must make a case for reclaiming it. Eventually President Vladimir Putin and his team will have to come around to that view. But what kind of condition will Chechnya be in when they finally throw up their hands and admit that they have failed?

Thomas de Waal, Caucasus editor with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.