Questions hang heavy in Chechen air

Steve Crawshaw in Grozny believes the dictum about jaw-jaw being better than war-war is no bad thing for the breakaway region

Talks, talks, and more talks. Talks about how to disarm, talks about how to withdraw, talks about having more talks.

On the basis of Churchill's dictum - jaw-jaw is better than war-war - maybe that is no bad thing for Chechnya. The war in the breakaway Caucasus republic is mostly low-key these days, except when the Russians suddenly go mad - as they did earlier this month, shelling Russian and Chechen homes into oblivion in the little town of Argun. The police station, their alleged target, was left unscathed.

If there is one bright spot to be found in Chechnya, then it might even be the performance of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Its dogged work in Grozny and across Chechnya has helped to broker a sort of ceasefire. Hungary, which holds the chair of the OSCE - in effect, a Europe-plus version of the UN - has persuaded the reluctant Russians to accept an OSCE presence in Grozny.

The Russians wanted to sort out their own "internal affairs". But the OSCE mission in Grozny helped to push through a military agreement, signed by both sides last month. Theoretically at least, that agreement can pave the way for peace.

The chief Russian negotiator, Anatoly Romanov, and his Chechen opposite number, Aslan Maskhadov, have achieved a reasonable working relationship. General Romanov is not an obvious Kremlin hawk; and Mr Maskhadov, though nominated by the tough-talking ousted president, Dzhokhar Dudayev, is not the craziest of the Chechens.

The military agreement throws up more questions than it answers, however. The Chechen side is due to disarm, and the Russian side is due to withdraw. But both argue about the terms.

The Russian President,Boris Yeltsin, has appointed Oleg Lobov, a member of the presidential security council, as his special representative in Chechnya. But Mr Lobov was one of those who helped to send the troops in. He is not the most obvious peace-maker.

Meanwhile, Chechnya remains in a kind of suspended animation. A few months ago, the Russians were more or less in control, at least militarily. Now, even that is unclear. Dudayev loyalists seem remarkably self-confident.

The most important difference between the situation now and before the war is not the change of political balance but the fact that Chechnya's total devastation makes it difficult to envisage a stable future.

Even where there is little enthusiasm for Mr Dudayev, there is even less for the Russian occupier. Meanwhile, the civilian losses continue. In the hospital in Shali, near Grozny, the continuing effects of the war can be seen. There is a stream of injuries and deaths from mines: the Russians have refused to offer up their minefield maps, let alone to remove the mines. In Shali alone, two children have died in the last few days.

Elections are scheduled for December. Those expected to stand include leaders of the "provisional" government in Grozny, which answers to Moscow; Ruslan Khasbulatov, former chairman of the Russian parliament, who, when in Moscow, was constantly at odds with President Yeltsin; and, perhaps, Dudayev loyalists, still seeking a separate Chechen state. But here too, many of the most important questions have yet to be answered. Elections imply choices. But is it a permissible for Chechnya's electors again to choose independence? And if they do, what then? For the moment, that question appears to have no answer.

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