Separatist Chechen factions have been locked with Russian federal forces in a bitter and bloody battle for complete independence from Moscow since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
Separatist leaders had warned of potential violence on voting day due to their concerns that many Chechens will feel forced to vote for Moscow’s plan out of fear of Russian forces.
Voters were asked in the poll to approve a draft constitution establishing it as an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation and to approve a draft law on the election of a president and a parliament.
“For centuries our ancestors have not recognized (Russian) power, and now they are trying to force us to vote at gunpoint,” Separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov was quoted as saying earlier in the week.
“I appeal to all who value our long-suffering country, all who value the honor of our nation, to all our republic’s citizens to unite at this hard time and to openly declare that there can be no alternative to an independent Chechen state,” he said.
Some 540,000 people were eligible to vote in the referendum including an estimated 40,000 Russian soldiers stationed in the region to keep the peace.
Russian election officials said that by late afternoon voter turnout was estimated to be over 75 percent. At least 50 percent of voters needed to participate in the poll for the results to be valid.
The head of Russia’s Central Election Commission, Alexander Veshnyakov, told the Interfax news agency that the referendum could be conditionally regarded as an “accomplished event” and that the 50 percent barrier had been “long overcome.”
“The voting returns may get official approval on Wednesday,” reported Veshnyakov.
He characterized voters in Chechnya as very active and said a number of districts posted turnouts of over 70 percent.
Most voters coming out of polling booths in the Chechen capital of Grozny told journalists that they had voted to approve the constitution and elections according to a report from Agence France Presse.
“I didn’t read (the draft constitution), I just cast a ballot,” one voter told the news service.
“I trusted them — they said on television that we should vote, so I voted,” she said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin took to the airwaves March 16 in support of the referendum, telling Chechens in a televised address that if they approved the referendum, their war ravaged homeland would have special autonomy and broad control over its affairs.
“The referendum is an important step in fighting devastation, a step towards order,” Putin said during the address. “I am convinced that a constitution adopted by the people is the foundation for a political settlement in Chechnya.”
Two polling booths were set up in neighboring Ingushetia, where a large number of Chechen refugees live out of fear for their security within Chechnya’s borders.
Voting in Ingushetia, Chechen refugee Magamedov Askhab crossed out all the questions on his ballot slip.
“I do not agree. Anyway, the outcome of the referendum has already been decided, so my vote does not count,” he told Reuters.
Some who participated in the referendum told reporters they did so out of hope that there may be a future for their decimated homeland rather than out of any true belief that the referendum will restore any kind of order.
“It’s impossible to live without hope; that’s why I came here. If they take away my hope, there will be noting but death for me,” refugee Roza Alkhazurova said according to the Associated Press.
Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were present to observe the referendum vote despite their earlier concerns that the situation in Chechnya is too fragile to properly vote on a new constitution.
Hrair Balain, an OSCE official monitoring the poll, told Reuters: “The constitution is less than perfect. But if it is a start of a process to replace the rule of the gun by the rule of law, then it will be a success. But this remains to be seen.”