GROZNY, Russia - Voters in war-torn Chechnya turned out in large numbers yesterday for a referendum on a new constitution designed to thwart hopes for independence in the separatist republic but pave the way for limited autonomy and peace.
About 80 percent of the 540,000 eligible voters had cast ballots by early evening, far more than the simple majority required to make the referendum valid, authorities said.
Results were not due until today, but opinion polls projected easy passage.
Voters were asked to approve a constitution that reconfirms Chechnya as part of Russia and to endorse rules for electing a Chechen president and parliament.
Step toward peace
Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has portrayed the referendum as an essential step toward peace, reconstruction and the withdrawal of troops who have been battling pro-independence guerrillas.
A key Kremlin goal is to de-legitimize Aslan Maskhadov, who won Chechnya's presidency in 1997 and is now a top guerrilla leader.
"After adoption of the constitution, Maskhadov and his entourage will have zero political status. As of today, they are bandits or terrorists," said Abdul-Kerim Arsakhanov, chairman of the Central Election Commission of Chechnya.
Critics, however, argue that the referendum could make peace more elusive.
"This war is evil, and instead of holding a phony referendum, all Chechens should be thinking about how to stop the war," said Movsar Kuduzov, 55, a former construction engineer who voted against the proposals.
"A mere referendum cannot bring the sides to lay their weapons down. Something more serious, like negotiations, is needed."
Brief time of self-rule
Although Chechens enjoyed self-rule in their Caucasus republic after defeating Russian troops in a 1994-1996 war, Russian forces returned in 1999 and have fought guerrillas since.
By official count, about 80,000 troops and special police are stationed in Chechnya.
"The majority of Chechen people do not want or need this referendum. It is a big trick," said Markha Salgeriyeva, 47.
"No one has been held liable for all those innocent Chechens who have gone missing. No one has shown to the mothers of those summarily executed and tortured to death where the graves of our children are."
Rebels had vowed to disrupt the balloting, and in the past week several polling stations suffered arson, grenade or gunfire attacks.
But yesterday's vote was free of violence, officials said.
"I want only two things: peace and stability in the republic," said Kheda Isayeva, 54, an unemployed doctor in Grozny.
"I pin my hopes on the referendum."
David Holley and Mayerbek Nunayev write for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.