Russia's Waning Clash with Islam

As the so-called "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West commands world attention, Russia's war in Chechnya has frequently been seen as a major front in that broader battle. So it is noteworthy that, as the US-led invasion of Iraq--and with it, America's clash with the Islamic world--grows more heated, Russia's battle with Muslim Chechens may be waning into something like peace.

The recent referendum in Chechnya on a new constitution coincided with the start of the war in Iraq. The outcome was better than anyone in the Kremlin could have hoped for: 89% of the Chechen electorate turned out to vote, and 96% of voters supported the Moscow-drafted constitution. These numbers surprised even President Vladimir Putin. At a cabinet meeting after the vote, he openly suggested that his officials might have been just a little too "proactive" in achieving such overwhelming results.

How should we interpret this "Yes" vote by the Chechen population? The numbers speak for themselves. Of course, ballot rigging took place. But if officials falsified 10%, 20%, or even 30% of the ballots--and no one suggests such a level of fraud--the vote in favor of the constitution would still amount to an overwhelming majority of Chechnya's population. Even if one subtracts the votes cast by Russian soldiers (5% of the total), most of those who participated in the vote supported keeping Chechnya in Russia.

The mere fact that a vote took place is important. Exhausted by the ongoing war, most Chechens now are ready to resolve their problems within the framework provided by Russia's elastic federal structure. They are prepared to discuss a constitution according to which they remain within the Russian Federation, but with a great deal of local autonomy, such as the republic of Tartarstan enjoys.