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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Lebed's Peacemaking In Moscow

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 28 August 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Russian national security chief Aleksandr Lebed is finding it far harder to make peace in Moscow than he did to end the fighting in Chechnya.

That is because in Moscow, the retired general faces not one opponent but three, and each of them is potentially more deadly to his political aspirations than were any of the Chechen forces.

The first of these opponents is the most numerous but perhaps the least difficult for the retired general to overcome: the still overwhelming majority of Russian officials and Russian citizens who are unwilling to recognize Chechen independence, even if they no longer have the stomach for fighting.

The second opponent with which Lebed must contend includes the other Russian politicians who hope to succeed the apparently ailing Boris Yeltsin and who don't want Lebed to get the political credit that might go to the man who stopped the fighting.

And the third group numbers just one man: Boris Yeltsin, who launched the war against the Chechens in December, 1994 but who subsequently has shown himself concerned about the impact of the war or any settlement on his own political fate.

Like the effective general he once was, Lebed has adopted a strategy to defeat each of these opponents, but given the nature of the forces arrayed against him, these strategies have not yet proved successful.

For those who are weary of the war but not yet ready to concede independence to Chechnya, Lebed reportedly has crafted a plan under which the Chechens would agree to remain in the Russian Federation for five years in exchange for Moscow's recognition of their right to hold a referendum on independence to be held at the end of that period.

Such an arrangement might allow Lebed to square a circle in a way no one else has succeeded in doing: combining the diametrically opposed positions of the Chechens and the Russians. That is because both sides are very aware that five years is a very long time in this part of the world.

For the other politicians who fear that Lebed might get too much credit for any settlement -- and who obviously hope that his involvement there would result in his political demise -- Lebed has tried to act as if he is taking their views into account. Indeed, given the Russian population's increasingly negative attitude toward any resumption in the fighting, at least some of them may be willing to join him.

One who now appears willing in principle to do so is Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, Lebed's likely chief competitor in any Yeltsin succession struggle. According to the Russian media, Chernomyrdin is now edging toward the Lebed-brokered compromise, probably out of both conviction and concern about the political boost a settlement might give Lebed.

Other officials may be coming around as well. Russia's leading military commentator Pavel Felgengauer pointed out last week, for example, that many who want to see reform in the Russian armed forces have concluded that they must work to end the Chechen conflict in order to begin the work of reform.

But Lebed's last opponent in Moscow may be the most difficult one for him to overcome. Recently labeled "the only member of the party of war" by a Western diplomat, Russian President Yeltsin has been extremely reluctant to embrace what Lebed has done or may do to bring peace in Chechnya.

There are at least three reasons for this: First, Yeltsin at least in public remains totally opposed to Chechen independence. Second, Yeltsin may hope that Lebed will destroy himself in the process of trying to reach peace in Chechnya.

And third, Yeltsin's own style of rule increasingly finds him standing like a tsar above the fray, forcing his subordinates to weaken themselves by infighting, and then intervening at a moment of maximum political advantage to himself.

That moment has not yet come, and Lebed does not seem to be able to force it. But until it does, the battle of Grozny may be over, but the battle of Moscow will go on.