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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Backing Away From Chechen Peace?

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 12 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The Russian government took three steps Wednesday that threaten the still very fragile peace in Chechnya.

Russia's justice minister Valentin Kovalev announced that from Moscow's point of view, the accord that Russian national security chief Aleksandr Lebed signed with the Chechens on August 31 "does not have any independent legal significance at a state level."

Kovalev's words echo those of Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin a week earlier. At that time, Chernomyrdin said that the Lebed-brokered agreement was merely "a political document," albeit a politically useful one, and that as such, it was not legally binding on the Russian state.

But in contrast to Chernomyrdin, Kovalev did not suggest that the agreement had any utility. Instead, he pointedly noted that it could have no legal significance concerning any possible change in the status of Chechnya or in the borders of the Russian Federation.

Given that virtually all Chechens and almost all outside observers believe that the August 31 accord was reached precisely because it anticipates a future referendum on the status of Chechnya, Kovalev's words are the clearest indication yet that the current Russian government has no intention of respecting the agreement its national security chief signed.

Vladimir Lukin, the chairman of the Duma foreign relations committee and chief of the Russian delegation to the Council of Europe, reacted with anger to its decision to invite Chechen military leader Arslan Maskhadov to speak before the Council on September 23.

Lukin said that this invitation was "very insulting and unacceptable for Russia." He said that he would advise Aleksandr Lebed, who also has been invited to speak on that day, to stay away. And Lukin said that he personally would not attend the Council session if Maskhadov were allowed to speak.

Quite obviously, Lukin, who earlier served as Russia's ambassador to Washington and who remains close to Boris Yeltsin, wants to send a very strong signal that Moscow will continue to react promptly and negatively to any Western initiative that appears to "internationalize" the Chechen issue.

A spokesman for the pro-Moscow Chechen regime of Doku Zavgayev threatened that Zavgayev would mobilize some 40,000 armed men to block Chechen independence unless Moscow quickly acknowledged the creeping "coup d'etat" which he said was now going on in Grozny.

Zavgayev's spokesman is apparently referring to the ongoing congress of Chechen political parties and movements and its efforts to form a broad coalition government. Some at the congress have indicated that they would be willing to include in a new Chechen administration at least some pro-Zavgayev representatives, but such a new regime would mark the end of the little power Zavgayev has enjoyed.

But because Zavgayev has always been Moscow's man on the scene and because even now he lives in Moscow rather than in Chechnya, the words of his spokesman certainly reflect the views of his Russian patrons who do not want to see a pro-independence government ensconced in Grozny rather than of Zavgayev himself.

And consequently this Chechen threat is really a Russian one. Any one of these three developments would be disturbing, but coming together as they did on Wednesday, they suggest that many in Moscow want to torpedo the Lebed peace accord by seeking to maintain Chechnya's diplomatic and legal isolation and by implicitly threatening the resumption of hostilities on the ground.

Over the last few days, the congress of Chechen political parties and movements has been working to address the key problems of governance in that war-shattered republic. But these developments suggest that there are all too many powerful people in Russia who want for one reason or another to back away from that better future.