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Chechnya: Analysis From Washington--Three Faces of Chechen Settlement

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 29 August 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow appears ready to adopt one of three strategies for ending the Chechen war, now that the Russian people have shown that they have little willingness to stomach for continuing the fighting.

All of the strategies have been crafted in the first instance to provide a fig leaf to cover Chechen successes on the battlefield and the likelihood that the Chechens will enjoy some kind of de facto, if not de jure, independence in the future.

But each will have very different consequences for the Chechens, the Russians and the world at large.

The first solution -- a Chechen agreement to put off for now a final declaration of independence in return for Russian aid and Moscow's promise to abide by a Chechen referendum on its status at the end of that time -- is the centerpiece of Russian national security chief Aleksandr Lebed's "comprehensive plan" for solving the war.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin reportedly is studying this plan. But to date, Yeltsin has not yet been willing to discuss it face-to-face with his chief security advisor although reportedly they have had telephone contact.

The advantages of this plan are obvious: it would end the war and allow Moscow to save face as it pulls its forces out of Chechnya. But its disadvantages are equally obvious and perhaps insurmountable:

First, such a plan would ultimately mean Chechen independence, something Yeltsin and many other Russians still find it hard to accept or to take responsibility for.

Second, because it would stretch the process of Chechen independence out, it might lead other regions within the Russian Federation to think about following the Chechen path, something that so far they have shown little interest in doing.

And third, Moscow would be forced to spend a lot of money it does not have in a politically unpopular way: on people who continue to insist on their independence.

The second solution would involve Moscow's granting the Chechens a kind of quasi-independence, perhaps as a protectorate of the Russian Federation. Such a status would allow the Chechens to be independent in all areas except foreign affairs and defense matters. Some Russian newspapers have indicated that experts in the Russian foreign and nationality ministries are looking at this idea.

Despite its possible attractions to both sides, it has equally obvious problems. The idea of a "protectorate" has no real analogies in the contemporary world and might raise more questions than it answers. Moreover, the Chechens would likely accept it only if they saw it as a means to something more.

At the same time, few Russians would see this arrangement as an adequate fig leaf to cover the fact that they would be conceding Chechen independence. As a result, this proposal while perhaps intellectually elegant, is likely to remain politically unviable in either Moscow or Grozny.

And the third solution some Russians are talking about may turn out to be not a solution at all. One Moscow newspaper has christened it the "Afghan option" -- Russia would withdraw its forces as it is now doing, and the insurgents that Russia has been unable to defeat in battle would come to power.

Given Yeltsin's unwillingness or inability to come to a decision, such an outcome may be the most likely. But if so, that is hardly reassuring news to either side of the conflict.

For the Chechens, such an arrangement would be no resolution at all. It would simply reestablish the conditions and behavior of the status quo before the Russian invasion of December 1994, conditions that provoked Yeltsin to intervene in the first place.

And for Russians, the costs of this third option might be even higher. As one Moscow newspaper has noted, such a Russian retreat "usually does not mark an end to the war" but rather leads to its spread.

Unfortunately, because such an approach might buy Yeltsin time it may look like a solution to the Russian president. But in "solving" his own political problem, the Russian president will have done nothing to solve the problems of either his country or Chechnya.