Chechen 'peace' changes little

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The Independent Online
Russians who believed that Alexander Lebed, the Mr Fixit of the Kremlin, had finally buried their dispute with Chechnya, saw their hopes fading this weekend. The rebels' most senior politician made clear that the war may be over, but the battle for independence was not.

Only a day after Mr Lebed had scrawled his name on a peace agreement, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, the separatists' self-styled president, was publicly insisting that his followers' demands for total autonomy were unchanged.

Although his remarks may have been an attempt to appease radical factions in the rebel movement who resent making any concessions to the Russians, they are also certain to be seized upon by critics of the accord in Moscow and Chechnya, who - for a variety of reasons - are finding it hard to stomach the sight of Russia troops leaving the war zone.

While many ordinary Russians and Chechens welcome an end to the conflict, whatever the terms, the political response has veered from enthusiasm (from the head of the liberal-leaning Yabloko parliamentary group), to careful praise (from the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin), to outright coolness (from a holidaying Mr Yeltsin).

But there is no doubt that Mr Lebed's confident announcement that the "war is over" is regarded with deep alarm and suspicion by others, including powerful elements in the Russian military, who see it as tantamount to defeat, and members of the Moscow-backed Chechen government who now face the wrath of a slice of the Chechen population which believes that it was betrayed. Yesterday there were reports that the puppet government, which was elected by a rigged vote, was planning to resign.

Under the agreement, settlement of Chechnya's political status will be postponed for five years, but it is not clear how it will eventually be determined. The separatists had hoped for a referendum, which would be certain to produce overwhelming support for secession, but it is not clear whether this has been agreed. A poll would meet with resistance in the Kremlin, which has been adamant that, whilst it may be willing to grant considerable autonomy, it will not accept the total separation of Chechnya from the federation.

Mr Yandarbiyev's remarks are further proof that the issue may have been delayed, but it has not been resolved. That may not be the only quarter which presents problems. Mr Yeltsin has so far remained silent about the deal, and is continuing to treat Mr Lebed with all the aloofness of a headmaster dealing with a pushy schoolboy.

According to Mr Chernomyrdin, the President approved a draft of the agreement before Mr Lebed set off for the negotiations. But yesterday he was reportedly asking for details of alterations made during the talks. The President's frostiness has added to the evidence that Mr Yeltsin has no desire to shower garlands on Mr Lebed. But it is also canny politics. All deals on Chechnya can easily explode. Mr Yeltsin knows that it is best not to be standing too close when they do so.