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Analysis From Washington -- A Chechen Surprise?

  • Paul Goble



Washington, June 6 (RFE/RL) -- Upbeat Russian coverage of Wednesday's talks with the Chechens and a beefing up of security arrangements across Russia to forestall any possible Chechen attack point to two very different possible Chechen surprises prior to the Russian presidential vote.

Neither is likely to happen.

No agreement between Moscow and the Chechens is likely anytime soon. The Chechens continue to insist on independence for their region. And as the Russians certainly know, they are prepared to resume the use of force should talks not give them what they want.

And Russian President Boris Yeltsin will not back away from his oft-repeated statements that Moscow will never agree to Chechen independence. Were he to shift on this now, he would lose far more votes than he would gain.

But if a genuine Chechen peace is unlikely in the near future, so too are the chances of any Chechen attack on Russian civilians or even military targets beyond the borders of Chechnya itself. There are three reasons for that:

First, the Chechens clearly believe that they gain both international support and grudging Russian recognition everytime they sit down to talk. And they know that breaking the ceasefire by an attack into Russia would not only end the current negotiations but also make future talks less likely.

Second, the Chechens undoubtedly know that Yeltsin would use any Chechen attack as an excuse to employ massive Russian force against the remaining Chechen rebels. By taking a hard line in such circumstances, he could pose as a victor in the Chechen war, something that would probably win him even more support than his current posture as "peacemaker." Were the Russian president to do otherwise, his chief opponents -- communist Gennady Zyuganov and nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky -- could be expected to exploit Yeltsin's supposed "weakness" to win votes. And third, given expanded Russian security measures in advance of the election, the Chechens and their Russian opponents both understand that launching such an attack would be far more difficult than such measures had been in the past.

Given that these two extremes are probably excluded, what could happen before the Russian presidential election that might constitute a Chechen surprise?

Three possibilities suggest themselves:

There might be a Chechen attack sponsored by one or another group of Chechens or Russians. Depending on who was behind it, such an attack could be intended to highlight Yeltsin's weakness, allow Yeltsin to respond harshly against the Chechens or permit Moscow to cancel or otherwise restrict the scheduled elections.

Alternatively,there might be a partial Russian-Chechen accord allowing both sides to claim a kind of victory, an agreement that would call for some withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya and allow some kind of genuine autonomy for the Chechen authorities.

Or there might be a collapse in the talks without any date being set for their renewal. In that event, Yeltsin could pose as the tough defender of Russian sovereignty over the region, and the new Chechen leadership could pose as toughminded defenders of Chechen national interests.

The fact that elections are going on in Russia make some combination of the second and third the most likely.

But given the turbulent nature of Russian politics, the first possibility cannot be excluded. And that means that until the Russian elections are over, many people in both Moscow and Chechnya will continue to worry about a Chechen surprise.
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