Chernomyrdin warns of threat to democracy

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The Independent Online
Moscow - The Russian Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, yesterday told the nation in a television address that the conflict in Chechnya had put in jeopardy Russia's progress towards democracy and called for immediate peace talks to end what he c alled "our common tragedy", writes Andrew Higgins.

The start of negotiations, said the Prime Minister in his first extended commentary on the crisis, "should mean a ceasefire at the same time". But he also stressed that Chechnya must remain part of Russia and defended the use of force to "restore constitutional law and order" as unavoidable.

"The future of Russia, our future depends on the resolution of the crisis in Chechnya," Mr Chernomyrdin said. "Everything that has been done to consolidate democracy in our country in recent years is being called into question."

Sidelined during the early stage of a war launched on 11 December, Mr Chernomyrdin has emerged over the past week as a moderate counterweight to defence and security officials who initiated what has become a military and political fiasco for President Boris Yeltsin.

"Our main task today is to end the bloodshed," said the Prime Minister, striking a far less belligerent note than an earlier television speech by Mr Yeltsin. He made the address on orders from the President, a further sign that Mr Yeltsin is now struggling to escape from the rubble of a gamble gone desperately wrong.

Unlike Mr Yeltsin in his only attempt to explain Russia's biggest military venture since the Afghan war, Mr Chernomyrdin expressed sympathy for all those killed in five weeks of fighting and made no attempt to portray Chechnya as a land of gangsters and Islamic fanatics, previously a mainstay of Russian propaganda.

Earlier yesterday, Russia's acting prosecutor general, Alexei Ilyushenko, said a senior commander, Colonel-General Eduard Vorobyov, was under investigation for allegedly refusing to lead the military campaign in Chechnya.

Mr Chernomyrdin's offer of negotiations was extended to "all interested parties and forces" but seemed to rule out any future role for the leader of Chechnya's three-year-old separatist rebellion, Dzhokhar Dudayev. The first item on the agenda of any talks, he said, should be a "moratorium of the movement of all troops and military equipment, the termination of the use of artillery, missile launching equipment and armour", and the creation of combat-free zones.

But Mr Chernomyrdin made it clear that Moscow intended to remove Mr Dudayev. He promised "consultations" on the "formation of a capable and responsible government" in Chechnya as a prelude to democratic elections.