Agreement leaves Chechnya's status uncertain

HELEN WOMACK

Moscow

Russia's negotiating team returned to Moscow from Grozny yesterday, hailing the peace agreement they managed to reach with the Chechens after weeks of difficult talks.

But resentful federal troops in the Caucasian region said the deal looked like a defeat for Russia and many ordinary Russians were inclined to agree.

Sunday's accord, covering the purely practical aspects of disengagement, is essentially little more than a ceasefire. The big political issue - whether or not Chechnya should be independent - remains unresolved. The negotiators say they will try to tackle it again this month.

Thus, after a costly eight-month campaign, Russia has achieved only an uneasy truce with a tiny nation it thought it could bring to heel with a snap of the imperial fingers. Russians are asking what on earth it was all for.

Last December, when President Boris Yeltsin sent tanks and troops into Chechnya to crush a separatist rebellion which had been going on since 1991, experts on the Muslim regions of Russia warned him that the Chechens would resist with a "holy war". Now the administration - and apparently the ailing President himself - are beginning to see that the experts were right.

The Russian army, which reduced Grozny to rubble in February but failed to subdue Chechen gunmen in the mountains, could have pressed on with the war until the last resistance was wiped out, the Interior Minister, General Anatoly Kulikov, said yesterday. The official death toll among Russian servicemen stands at 1,800, and at least 20,000 civilians were killed in Grozny and elsewhere.

In Moscow on Sunday, the paratroop commander, Colonel-General Yevgeny Podkozlin, unveiled a memorial to 18 of his lost men and blamed the Kremlin for the war. "The guilt is on those leaders who let it happen," he told grieving relatives. "It should be owned that we would not have had all those casualties had we resolved the issue through political means three years ago. We had been nurturing the abscess for a long time and then decided to lance it illegally."

The immediate task is to make fast the peace deal, which calls for a simultaneous disarming of the Chechens and withdrawal of Russian units. But even this limited goal will be hard to achieve, as continued fighting after the signing illustrated. Although all the Chechen negotiators signed the document, General Dzhokhar Dudayev, the Chechen leader, has denounced it, suggesting the rebels are split and some want to harry the Russians further.

In Moscow the Constitutional Court yesterday rejected a case made by human rights activists that President Yeltsin's military operation against Chechnya had been unconstitutional. But it remains to be seen whether the Kremlin leader can recover enough popularity to risk standing for re-election next year, assuming his health allows. The peace-making Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, comes out of the Chechen crisis looking stronger but the political shares of the hawkish Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, have never been lower.

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