How Yeltsin's absence let PM do deal on hostages deal

Russia's hawks lost face for trying to solve the crisis by force, writes Andrew Higgins in Budennovsk
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Shamil Basayev, ensconced in a doctor's office on the second floor of the battle-scarred Central District Hospital, had just got off the phone with Russia's Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, when Russian armoured troop carriers, cannons at the ready, started to move forward again.

It was this moment, shortly after noon on Sunday, a day after a botched and bloody Russian assault on the hospital compound, that the fate of more than a 1,000 hostages hung in the balance.

"This was a very unpleasant, tense moment," said Oleg Orlov, a human- rights activist who had been in the Chechen commander's hospital command room all morning helping to draft the terms of a possible settlement. "Everything was signed and ready but then this started."

For about 20 minutes, the Chechens and Russians teetered on the brink of another round of shooting. Then the crisis passed. The Russian armour stopped moving.

"It was either a provocation or, there is a very good Russian word: it was bardak [complete chaos]," Mr Orlov said.

Russia's decision-making throughout the grim drama at the Budennovsk hospital was marked by the same confusion.

With President Yeltsin away in Canada at a G7 meeting, and his Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, reportedly relaxing in the country when troops tried to storm the hospital, Mr Chernomyrdin managed to impose some order.

For the first time since Mr Yeltsin ordered troops into Chechnya on 11 December, the so-called "power ministries" - Defence, Interior and Security - lost their authority to dictate policy. A sign of this was a decision by Mr Chernomyrdin to appeal for help from Sergei Kovalyov, Russia's former human-rights ombudsman, who is detested by the "power ministers" because of his opposition to the Chechen war.

Late on Saturday night, Mr Chernomyrdin phoned Mr Kovalyov, who had already arrived in Budennovsk on his own initiative along with Mr Orlov, and asked him to enter the hospital to try and talk to Mr Basayev.

Mr Chernomyrdin's negotiations with a group of Chechen guerrillas has been criticised as encouraging terrorism. But he is praised for having halted or slowed what, since Mr Yeltsin called in tanks to shell the Soviet-era parliament in Moscow in October 1993, has been a tendency in the Kremlin to regard military force as an easy solution to difficult problems.

After announcing in Halifax, Canada that he had give the go-ahead for the storming of the hospital, Mr Yeltsin yesterday said he approved of Mr Chernomyrdin's preference for negotiation: "I see no mistakes on his side."

Mr Yeltsin, his popularity wallowing in single digits, presides over an increasingly directionless government rent by rivalry and dominated, until the Budennovsk crisis, by the various security ministries.

According to Russians who visited the hospital to try to mediate a settlement, the Chechens at no point demanded talks with Mr Yeltsin, a sign that they too saw little chance of success in such negotiations. "I'm not sure how much Yeltsin would hinder but I'm sure he cannot help. That is certain," said Mr Orlov, "Thank God he was not here."

By the time Mr Yeltsin arrived back in Moscow from the G7 summit on Monday, a deal to secure the release of most of the hostages had been reached. Throughout Sunday afternoon, Mr Chernomyrdin and Mr Basayev had exchanged faxes, relayed through the crisis centre in Budennovsk's police station, spelling out the terms of a deal. The Chechens wanted a promise to end hostilities in Chechnya and a commitment from Moscow to negotiate all other issues, including the disengagement of Chechen and Russian forces.

Such pledges are likely to be worth little if and when the Chechens release their remaining captives - the 16 journalists, several parliamentary deputies and more than a 100 hostages from the hospital who "volunteered" to travel with a convoy of buses heading to rebel-held territory in Chechnya.

Mr Chernomyrdin, though, seems only briefly to have prevailed over hawks in Moscow. Foremost among these is Mr Grachev, who publicly recommended military action as the only way out of the hostage crisis a day before the Interior Ministry troops launched their bloody attack.