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Analysis From Washington - Having It Both Ways on Chechnya

  • Paul Goble

Washington, June 14 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Boris Yeltsin appears to want to have it both ways on Chechnya, to pose simultaneously as a peacemaker and as a victor.

On the one hand, he recently signed an accord with the Chechen leadership of Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev which called for postponing local elections now scheduled for this Sunday and demilitarization of the region, including the withdrawal of Russian troops.

On the other, he said on Thursday that Moscow would not overrule the pro-Moscow government in Grozny and enforce the postponement of local elections there as Moscow and Yandarbiyev had agreed. And on Wednesday, the Russian commander in Chechnya, General Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, is widely reported to have denied Western reports that a Russian military pull-out had begun.

Some of this back and forth obviously reflects very real difficulties on the ground. The fact that Russian military withdrawal has not begun does not mean that it will never take place. And the issue of the delay of local elections is normally a question for local officials.

But most of it appears to be the result of crass election calculations by Yeltsin and his supporters. By suggesting as he did last week that he is trying to make peace, Yeltsin can garner support from those Russians who are weary of this conflict. But by demonstrating this week that he will decide unilaterally on what happens in Chechnya, he can reassure those who do not want Moscow to make any concessions.

In the noise of the last few days before the Russian presidential vote, each of these groups may choose to see in Yeltsin and his policy what they want.

But Yeltsin's decision to go back on his earlier word concerning the elections in fact raises some broader and more disturbing questions.

First, any leader who shows that he will not keep faith with his promises on one issue inevitably raises questions about his promises on all others. Yeltsin has made many promises in this election campaing; this is the first one that he has so quickly and openly violated. Inevitably, this will affect his ability to win trust and get agreements in the future.

Second, Yeltsin's moves this week suggest that he is already looking beyond Sunday's first round vote toward what is likely to be a competition between himself and Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov for the support of Russian nationalists in the second round. To the extent that is true, Yeltsin seems less likely to shift toward the reformers during that period that some Russian and Western analysts have been suggesting

And third, it almost certainly means that the Chechens as a group will be even less likely to accept Moscow's word on any issue at all in the future. That in turn means that the radicals rather than the moderates will gain ascendancy in the Chechen national movement.

And those Chechens seem certain to call for continuing the war and possibly spreading the violence.

That in turn might give Yeltsin the opportunity to move even more sharply against them, a step that many Russians apparently would approve. But it would also likely guarantee that the fighting in Chechnya will continue.

In that event, what may make for good politics in the short term is unlikely to result in good policy over the longer haul.