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Russia: Analysis From Washington--The Chechen War Resumes In Moscow

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 4 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Political attacks this week on Russian national security chief Aleksandr Lebed for his efforts to make peace in Chechnya threaten the fragile ceasefire in that republic and Lebed's own political future in Moscow.

On Wednesday, Russian Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov and numerous Duma deputies used the opening session of the parliament to denounce Lebed and his efforts to settle the Chechen war.

Kulikov -- whom Lebed himself has criticized for mishandling the Chechen conflict -- led the attack. He denounced Lebed's August 31 accord with the Chechens as an act of "national betrayal" and said that Lebed had thus helped to create "a totalitarian anti-Russian state" on Russia's southern border.

And the interior minister said that Lebed's "appeasement" of the Chechens rivaled that of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain at Munich. Moreover, and to the applause of the Duma deputies, Kulikov argued that "not one ruble from the federal budget" should be spent on the reconstruction of Chechnya.

Other Duma deputies followed Kulikov's line. Speakers from three of the four largest parties -- including the party of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin -- accused Lebed of "high treason."

To the hisses and boos of a majority of the Russian parliament, Lebed attempted to defend his policy and himself. He denounced the Chechen conflict as "a most stupid war" which had cost from 80,000 to 100,000 lives. And he denounced his opponents for wanting simultaneously total victory and an end to the fighting.

Lebed observed that to achieve such an outcome, "you need either a magician, a golden fish, or something like that." And confessing that he was not any of these, Lebed finally decided to walk out of the Duma chamber rather than continue to be heckled.

Only one major political figure within the Duma spoke out in support of the embattled general: Grigory Yavlinsky, the leader of the liberal Yabloko party and a longtime critic of the Chechen fighting. He noted that it was not Lebed but rather the generals criticizing him -- an obvious reference to Kulikov -- who had "lost the war" in Chechnya. But for his efforts, Yavlinsky too was booed.

And even Boris Yeltsin's support for Lebed, whom he finally received this week, was anything but enthusiastic. While Yeltsin said Lebed had been carrying out his instructions in halting the combat, he stressed that "it is too early to rest content."

Yeltsin said that he had given new and "appropriate" instructions "last week" as to how Moscow should proceed in Chechnya -- as if Lebed's August 31 ceasefire accord could now simply be ignored.

Such criticism by the Duma and lukewarm support by Yeltsin seem certain to have serious consequences for Lebed and for Chechnya.

Lebed remains popular in Russia as a whole for his efforts to end the Chechen fighting, but the attacks on him this week suggest that he is now much weaker within the political elite than many outside commentators had thought. And that pattern of strength in the population and weakness in the elite may explain Lebed's recent statements and the efforts of the political class to undercut him.

Indeed, the political elite -- including Chernomyrdin and Yeltsin -- may be only too happy to see Lebed cut down to size or even ousted from his current position of power.

More seriously, however, the attacks on Lebed's Chechen policy may presage a renewal of that bloody conflict. Lebed is certainly correct that even his opponents do not want to fight, but their attacks on him, their calls for backing away from Russian commitments to give the Chechens reconstruction aid, and their demands for a harsh line against a foe who has won on the ground, could quickly backfire.

If talks between the Russian government and Chechen leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev scheduled for this week reflect the current balance of forces in the Russian capital, then Moscow may very well reignite the Chechen conflict even if none of Lebed's opponents genuinely wants to fight.