Yeltsin peace plan falls on deaf ears

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The Independent Online
President Boris Yeltsin's peace plan for Chechnya, seen as crucial to his chances of re-election in June, received a largely unenthusiastic response in Russia yesterday - on the ground it proved impossible to put a neat end to fighting at midnight.

Russian shelling eased after Mr Yeltsin appeared on television on Sunday to announce a unilateral ceasefire and partial withdrawal of troops. But in the small hours of yesterday morning, Muslim rebels ambushed an army unit in the south-eastern village of Vedeno, killing 28 servicemen and wounding 69.

Serving Russian soldiers said they believed they would soon be fighting again. "The rebels have got used to the feel of a gun and are not going to give up that easily," said one conscript in Grozny. Another complained that the partial troop withdrawal would leave those who stayed behind "sitting ducks".

Among domestic politicians, the most charitable comment on the peace plan, which envisages parliamentary elections for the Caucasus and talks on possible autonomy but not independence, came from Sergei Yushenkov, a leading democrat, who said it was "undoubtedly positive although belated".

But the retired General Alexander Lebed, who plans to challenge Mr Yeltsin for the presidency, dismissed the programme as a "pre-election profanation. As a military pro- fessional, I can say it is impossible to stop hostilities after a year and a half of massive aerial bombings. The question arises why this war was needed in the first place."

Western reaction was cautious. In Washington, a White House spokesman welcomed the initiative but said the US would be "looking for execution. While we have been sympathetic to the very difficult situation he [Mr Yeltsin] faced there, we have also been concerned with what we consider to be an excessive use of force."

Most elements of Mr Yeltsin's plan were predictable. Russian forces spent March pounding Chechnya as mercilessly as at the start of the war in the winter of 1994-95. The aim was to push fighters loyal to the separatist leader, General Dzhokhar Dudayev, back into the southern mountains and to intimidate as many settlements as possible into handing over their weapons and becoming "islands of peace".

Thus, it came as no surprise when Mr Yeltsin announced that two-thirds of Chechen territory was now under Russian control, making possible a withdrawal of some army units to the regional border. Kremlin forces left in Chechnya would keep up the fight against "terrorists".

The unexpected part of Mr Yeltsin's plan was his offer to hold indirect talks with Gen Dudayev, whom Moscow has up to now written off as a criminal. In a lively interview with Russian journalists after his rather dry speech, Mr Yeltsin said not all his advisers agreed with him but he had found mediators who would be prepared to go between Moscow and Gen Dudayev.

He spoke of an unnamed Arab sheikh, a former Soviet dissident identified as Orlov and the Kazakh leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, as possible intermediaries. Yesterday Mikhail Gorbachev, who is trying to get back into the Kremlin, offered his services too, as did politicians from independent Lithuania and the Muslim Russian region of Tatarstan.

"We are aware," Mr Yeltsin said in a sensational admission, "that Dudayev has built up strength and gained authority with a certain part of the population of Chechnya. This authority is not without taint and is sometimes criminal. But it is authority all the same."

The point of the talks remained a puzzle, however, for Gen Dudayev has said all along that nothing short of full independence will satisfy him while Mr Yeltsin said on Sunday the most he could offer Chechnya was the same kind of autonomy which Tatarstan enjoys.

Gen Dudayev did not immediately respond to the offer but his fighters gave a hint of the likely reaction. "Yeltsin just wants to preserve his job and is pretending to be a nice guy," said Isa Asukhanov, a rebel in southern Chechnya. "They started this war. As long as Russian troops remain on our territory, we will fight them."

Results might not be as important to Mr Yeltsin as impressing the electorate. He has described the Chechen conflict as the "biggest disappointment of my presidency", thus showing he is capable of acknowledging his mistakes. Now he may be perceived as at least trying to do something about his self- created problem.

The plan might help to get Mr Yeltsin re-elected even if it fails to stop the war. With the exception of Grigory Yavlinksy, who advocates a referendum on Chechen independence, few other politicians have any concrete alternatives to offer; and for economic reasons, many Russians are afraid of the Communists.