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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Date Set for Chechen Vote on Constitution

Election officials announced Friday that Chechnya will vote for a constitution on March 23 in a referendum that the Kremlin hopes will push the republic closer toward stability.

Some 530,000 Chechen residents and 38,000 federal troops permanently stationed in Chechnya will be eligible to vote in the referendum, said Central Election Commission head Alexander Veshnyakov.

"We will do all that is possible to create the conditions for a democratic and free vote," Veshnyakov said.

Chechens must be able to "cast their vote freely, with no one prosecuting them for participating or for not participating," he said.

Foreign election observers and international groups such as the European Council will be invited to observe the vote and receive information about the pre-vote preparations, he said.

The March vote is a forerunner to the eventual elections of a Chechen president and parliament.

In an apparent bid to encourage Chechen refugees to return home, Veshnyakov said voting will only take place in Chechnya. Chechens who want to participate must return to the republic, even if only crossing the border into the nearest town, he said.

Violence is still part of daily life in Chechnya, and many Chechens and human rights advocates have argued that the referendum will be a farce without first establishing peace. But President Vladimir Putin called for it late last year, portraying the referendum as a key step toward resolving the three-year conflict.

Lyudmila Alexeyeva and Svetlana Gannushkina, two veteran activists who now serve on Putin's advisory human rights commission, told a news conference Friday that refugees are eager to return home but fear going back until the security situation improved.

"People don't want to go back to Chechnya as long as drunken soldiers run riot every night and as long as there is a chance for terrorist attacks ... which are on the conscience not only of those who carry them out, but also of those who allow them to take place," Gannushkina said.

She and Alexeyeva poured scorn on the current security measures, which allowed suicide bombers to drive through three cordons and blow up their trucks right outside the Chechen government headquarters on Dec. 26.

The two had attended a meeting in the building and ate lunch in the cafeteria and left about an hour and a half before the blast.

Security guards carefully searched Alexeyeva's handbag upon entering the building, she said. "They didn't find a truck there," she said.

A Druzhba aid worker who was kidnapped in Chechnya in July has been released, Interfax reported.

Nina Davydovich was freed Tuesday in a raid by Federal Security Service officers, Interfax reported. The report did not give further details.

Davydovich, 57, told a news conference in the Stavropol region town of Pyatigorsk on Thursday that she had been kept in a pit, chained by the leg and fed only once a day. "I survived only by a miracle," she was quoted by Interfax as saying. The report said her captors had initially sought a ransom of $1 million, later lowered to $300,000.