| Russian President Vladimir Putin offered Chechnya
within Russia if the separatist republic approved a new constitution
contentious referendum next weekend.
The constitution would "give Chechnya a chance to reconstruct
its life and
obtain sweeping autonomy within Russia's borders," Putin
said in a
televised address broadcast late Sunday to the few Chechen households
still have access to television.
Putin's speech was also broadcast in full as top news on Russian
bulletins on Monday morning.
The Russian leader -- linked inseparably to the campaign that
in October 1999 -- said voting in the referendum would be "an
step" towards ending the devastation caused by fighting and
"Only the people can determine their destiny. You have your
future in your hands, and that of your homeland. So I call on
you to vote
and make a correct choice," he said.
The poll comes three and a half years after Russia, headed by
minister Putin, sent its troops into Chechnya to put down a separatist
Critics argue that the security situation in Chechnya, where
continue to inflict regular losses on Russian forces and pro-Russian
administrators, is too precarious to lend the poll validity.
Russian liberals gathered in central Moscow Monday to speak out
disputed vote, which comes against the backdrop of daily violence
But, split for much of the past decade on the issue, they ended
among themselves instead of uniting against the referendum vote.
A statement saying that the referendum would be a "political
mistake" was not signed by Grigory
Yavlinsky, the head of the liberal Yabloko faction who is
considered by some to be one of Russia's most influential lawmakers.
Those attending the session told AFP that Yavlinsky disagreed
premise that any peace conference between Russian officials and
separatists should not include Putin at the first session.
"We cannot afford to have the president (sit at the peace
what he is trying to do is to fix the (Sunday) referendum,"
liberal lawmaker and member of the Memorial organization Sergei
"He is only backing the policy of one of the sides -- the
Chechens are not being involved," Kovalyov said.
Yavlinsky refused to sign the document, saying that any peace
involve the Russian president directly and stormed out of the
"We believe that only the president can take part in such
Artyomyev, a senior Yabloko party member said after Yavlinsky's
Putin has argued that the new constitution would form the basis
durable peace in the republic. The Russian president has refused
with the Chechen rebels, denouncing them as terrorists.
"A constitution accepted by its people would become a basis
for a political
settlement in Chechnya, allowing them to choose truly democratic
authorities that would rely on popular trust," Putin said,
the republic would not be allowed to secede.
He said the new constitution would help end Russian troops' "security
sweeps," bureaucracy, corruption and the harsh military rule
Putin also held out the prospect of an amnesty if the result
of the poll
A "positive outcome" to the referendum would allow
the State Duma (lower
house) in Moscow to consider a request for an amnesty, he said
to clergymen who said there should be an amnesty for Chechens
who had "gone
The Russian leader was upbeat in his assessment of the present
the republic, though he admitted that life in Chechnya for the
"still looks as it has been hit by a natural catastrophe."
Around 530,000 Chechens are eligible to vote in the referendum,
as are some
23,000 Russian troops permanently stationed in the breakaway republic.