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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Toward A Chechen Peace Process

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 29 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his current set of aides this week launched a self-described "peace process" in Chechnya.

But so far there are few indications that this widely reported "process" will yield the political benefits that Yeltsin seeks, lead to peace, or even have the ultimate outcome that Moscow appears to expect.

Over the weekend, in a move to which the Russian media gave extensive coverage, Yeltsin's newly-appointed security council secretary Ivan Rybkin met with Chechen leaders in Ingushetiya. And on his return to Moscow, Rybkin said on Monday that Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin would travel to Chechnya "in the near future."

Rybkin's further statement that the premier's participation in the process was now "indispensable" was clearly intended to send two signals: On the one hand, Rybkin was underlining that unlike Lebed, he could not and would not act on his own initiative. And on the other, he implied without providing any specifics that the talks themselves are moving forward.

The political calculations of Yeltsin and his government behind this decision to launch such a process are transparently obvious.

First, by adopting the position of Aleksandr Lebed, the man who negotiated the August 31 ceasefire and whom he just dismissed, Yeltsin positions himself in a way that will make it extremely difficult for the popular former general to exploit the Chechen issue for political gain.

And Yeltsin certainly can only win internationally by portraying himself to the world now as a man committed to a peaceful resolution of the Chechen conflict.

Second, Yeltsin understands the political utility of an open-ended "peace process." It allows him to avoid the two things he clearly fears most about the Chechen conflict: a resumption in the fighting or an actual decision whose content could offend one or another group among his supporters.

As Lebed recognized and as Yeltsin now appears to, the Russian people and the Russian army are in no mood for a resumption in the fighting of a conflict that has already cost at least 100,000 lives. And any order to resume the fighting could trigger a political crisis in Moscow and possible insubordination by military commanders whose troops have not been paid for months.

And third, Yeltsin obviously hopes that something will turn up, that the Chechens will either fight among themselves or do something that will allow him to act against them with greater impunity than he would have now.

But like other peace processes around the world, this peace process may not yield the political benefits Yeltsin seeks precisely because of the inevitable difficulties. And that in turn reflects the fact that this process is unlikely to lead to peace itself any time soon.

On the one hand, there is no obvious compromise between the positions of the two sides -- the Chechen demand for independence and the Russian demand that the Chechens remain part of Russia -- and there is little goodwill on either side.

Rather, there are groups on both sides who see themselves as gaining only if the fighting resumes: Russians who would like to use the conflict to justify a more authoritarian regime in their country, and Chechens who see conflict as providing the unity they need to succeed.

As a result, any talks will necessarily be prolonged and will also necessarily break down more than once.

And on the other hand, both Moscow and the Chechens have shown that neither is willing to live up to what agreements they have made so far. The Russian government this week again was explicit that it would not provide the Chechens the assistance that Lebed appears to have promised them, and the Chechens have indicated that they will not disarm themselves as Moscow thinks they agreed.

But this does not mean that the peace process itself won't have an impact -- only that its impact is likely to be different than Yeltsin or others expect.

First and foremost, the very process will serve to legitimize the Chechen cause. Such legitimation will inevitably serve as a greater constraint on Moscow than on the Chechens.

Second, ever more Russians are likely to ask why the talks aren't proceeding more quickly and that fact will put greater pressure on the Russian government than the Chechens have succeeded in doing up to now.

And third, the longer the negotiations proceed, the more other regions in the Russian Federation -- ethnic Russian as well as non-ethnic Russian -- will see such talks as a useful means of putting pressure on Moscow for their goals.

As a result, while this process may not yield the political benefits Yeltsin expects or the peace the Chechens hope for, it will have consequences far beyond and very different from those imagined by the officials initiating it.