Boris Yeltsin appeared on national television last night to reveal a plan for ending the war in Chechnya, which he has admitted is likely to make or break his chances of being re-elected as Russian President in June. The plan promised a halt to combat operations in the Caucasian region and the partial withdrawal of troops. It also held out the possibility of indirect talks with the Chechen separatist leader, General Dzhokar Dudayev.
It remains to be seen how effective the plan will be, given that Moscow's forces were bombing Chechen villages up to the last minute before Mr Yeltsin spoke, and in view of the fact that no consultations were held with General Dudayev, who still considers that he is at war with Russia.
The commander of Russian forces in Chechnya, General Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, said after the broadcast that he hoped Russians understood it would be impossible to end all fighting immediately.
Mr Yeltsin admitted that "the Chechen crisis is Russia's biggest problem". To solve it, he had ordered an end to combat operations from 31 March and "a stage-by-stage withdrawal of federal forces from the quiet regions of Chechnya to its administrative borders.
"The military actions have helped create the necessary preconditions for a radical change in the situation," he said, in reference to the Russian military campaign.
Last week, the Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, said that over 100 Chechen villages had become "islands of peace" after they handed over their weapons to the Russian army, in exchange for security guarantees. Western reporters said the peace deals were often reached under duress.
Mr Yeltsin said efforts to "extend zones of conciliation" would continue, but added: "Of course, we will not tolerate terrorist actions. Responses to them will be adequate."
General Dudayev's Muslim fighters have been mostly pushed back into the southern mountains as a result of Russia's military offensive. The Kremlin incumbent must hope that none of them re-emerges to stage embarrassing pre-election raids of the kind that were made over the last year on hospitals in southern Russia.
President Yeltsin acknowledged military measures would not achieve a settlement of the Chechen conflict. "That is why the second task is to prepare and stage free democratic elections to a republican legislature," he said.
The Chechens have a bitter experience of "free" elections organised by Russian. Last December they were offered only one candidate, Doku Zavgayev, in a poll for a regional leader that was reminiscent of Brezhnev-era "democracy".
This time, President Yeltsin envisages a "political peace forum" composed of representatives from Chechen regions will help prepare the elections.
"The election of a new parliament will become a major step in recreating the bodies of state power in the Chechen republic," Mr Yeltsin said.
"As the system of power in Chechnya strengthens, responsibility and authority to finalise a settlement will shift from the government of the Russian Federation to the head, government and parliament of the Chechen republic."
Then the "main stumbling block - the peculiarities of the status of the Chechen republic" could be addressed, he said.
The Chechen separatists insist on full independence. Russia has offered autonomy, while insisting Chechnya must remain a part of the Russian Federation.
Nothing Mr Yeltsin said last night suggested Moscow had changed its position on independence. All Mr Yeltsin said was: "The main condition under which negotiations on the status of Chechnya could be started is normalising the situation in the republic and establishing peace, calm and stability there. For the sake of that we are ready to enter into negotiations, through intermediaries, with Dudayev's side."
He appointed the Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, a dove on the Chechen issue, to form a state commission for a settlement in the region.
Peace talks between envoys from Moscow and representatives of General Dudayev last summer produced a ceasefire. But it was violated on both sides as talks on a settlement ran into difficulties, until full-scale war broke out again last autumn.
Mr Yeltsin said he would ask the state Duma to consider an amnesty for Chechen fighters "except those who have committed grave common law crimes", presumably meaning those who took civilian hostages in the raids on southern Russian hospitals. He promised that humanitarian aid and government funds for reconstruction would be better distributed. "Today they often never reach those who need them most."
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