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Analysis From Washington - An Opening on Chechnya

  • Paul Goble

Washington, April 12 (RFE/RL) - Boris Yeltsin's decision to use the presidents of Tatarstan and Kazakhstan as mediators to end the war in Chechnya may have consequences far beyond those the Russian president intends.

Yeltsin clearly hopes that his decision to call for a ceasefire and to name a negotiating team to meet with Chechen President Jokar Dudayev will allow him to pose as a peacemaker during next week's meetings with world leaders - even as Russian forces continue their attacks on the ground.

And at one level, his selection of Mintimir Shaimiyev and Nursultan Nazarbayev as key players in this group and their willingness to play such a role - as announced on Thursday - makes eminent sense. Shaimiyev played a key role in negotiating the treaty between Moscow and Tatarstan, and Kazakhstan President Nazarbayev is one of the most ardent supporters of tighter integration of the former Soviet space.

But at another level, their involvement seems certain to affect not only Chechen attitudes and expectations but also relations between Moscow and the far-flung regions of Russia and relations between Russia and her neighbors.

In an important sense, the inclusion of the president of Kazakhstan in the negotiating team represents an implicit concession by Moscow to a key Chechen demand: the desire to be treated as an independent subject of international law.

Yeltsin may hope that the Chechens will be so pleased by such an acknowledgement that they will be more cooperative. But the reverse is likely to be the case.

Having forced Yeltsin to back down this far, the Chechens are likely to respond by suggesting that Moscow should allow them to become independent - something they want - and a member of the CIS - a face- saving measure for Yeltsin. Such a position would make sense because Dudayev knows that if Moscow does not agree to that now, they can continue to fight and force Moscow to make more concessions in the future.

But as dramatic as such an outcome would be, the possibility that Yeltsin might agree to what would be effective independence for Chechnya would necessarily have even more dramatic consequences on Russia itself and on Moscow's relations with her neighbors.

With regard to Russia, Tatarstan President Shaimiyev's participation in any talks with the Chechens could very easily reopen all agreements between Moscow and Russian regions. To the extent that Yeltsin is prepared to give the Chechens virtual independence, others - including Tatarstan in the first instance - are certain to ask why they should get less.

And the fact that Yeltsin might be forced to make this concession - a virtually independent Chechnya within the CIS - would necessarily have an impact on Russia's neighbors as well.

By including the president of Kazakhstan in negotiations that Yeltsin has said are a purely internal Russian affair, the Russian president all too clearly signals just how he views the other countries within the CIS. That impression will certainly offend many and may lead them to think seriously about just what their relations with Moscow should be.

But to the extent that Nazarbayev acts as the president of an independent country in these talks, he will necessarily internationalize the Chechen conflict, and that in turn will have an impact on how Russians - or at least their government - will look on their CIS partners.

In short, Yeltsin's latest effort to "solve" the Chechen war may not only exacerbate that problem but create a number of new ones as well.