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Is The Chechnya Conflict Entering A New Stage?

Prague, Feb. 7 (RFE/RL) - Can it be that the fourteen-month-long conflict in Chechnya is entering a new phase in which developments there are primarily shaped by politics rather than arms and bloodshed? Until now, violence has reigned supreme in Chechnya. People have been dying there in the thousands. Cities and villages have been burned and destroyed. For more than a year, hardly a day has passed without Russian rocket and artillery assaults against some Chechen towns or even small hamlets. But also hardly a night has passed without separatist Chechens attacking Russian military outposts.

During recent months, violence has spread to neighboring regions of the Federation, with Chechen separatists taking hostages in Russia and Dagestan. Russian forces responded with massive armed attacks. It seemed at times that killings would never stop, and terror would never subside.

But last week, something unusual happened. Regional governor of the Federation's central province of Nizhny Novgorod, Boris Nemtsov, presented President Boris Yeltsin with a petition calling for peace in Chechnya. The petition was said to have been signed by a million ordinary Russians. The Russian media have reported that the Russian Muslim Union in Dagestan, which borders Chechnya, began collecting signatures for a peace petition of their own. The media have also said that a similar movement was afoot in the southern Russia region of Stavropol.

During last week, Yeltsin himself was reported to have talked about Chechnya with Security Council Secretary and presidential representative to Chechnya, Oleg Lobov. Yeltsin also met with General Ruslan Ausher, president of neighboring Ingushetia.

No details of these conversations were made public, but Yeltsin was reported by both Russian and western media to be considering some sort of new peace initiative. Chechnya's Moscow-backed Prime Minister Doku Zavgayev said that the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya could begin in two-to-three weeks.

Last Sunday, thousands of ordinary Chechens began demonstrating in front of the ruined presidential palace in the capital city of Grozny, to protest the war and call for direct peace talks between separatist leader Dzhokhar Dudayev and the Russian government.

The demonstrations have continued since then, drawing large numbers of people from the city and neighboring communities. The Russians have not attempted to stop the gatherings, but countered with propaganda leaflets thrown from overflying helicopters.

Dudayev himself, and several other separatist leaders and military commanders, met last weekend with Russian and western journalists in the Chechen village of Novogroznensky to denounce the war, accuse the West of indirectly supporting the bloodshed by providing Moscow with funds, and to vow to fight until the "last drop of blood" in defense of Chechnya's independence.

Yesterday, the atmosphere changed again. Russian military commander, General Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, ordered his troops to remain ready "to shoot" if the Grozny demonstrations got out of hand. Zavgayev called for a special meeting of his Moscow-backed cabinet to prepare for a sudden crisis. And Chechen military commander Aslan Maskhadov put his forces on a "state of alert."

For his part, Yeltsin convoked a special session of the Security Council in Moscow. A regular session also is scheduled for Feb. 17. The Chechen conflict was the main point for deliberation. No information on the discussions has yet been released.

President Yeltsin is seeking re-election in the presidential poll scheduled for June 16. The Chechen problem is certain to be a politically important issue in the ballot. After long months of massive Russian efforts to destroy the separatists and pacify the rebellious republic, it is more obvious than ever that the war will not stop any time soon.

It is also apparent that Moscow's intervention there, which has never had support among ordinary Russians, is becoming increasingly unpopular. More ominous, these ordinary Russians are becoming restless, and their protests seem to be gathering new momentum.

Moscow leaders may well conclude that the time has come to make adjustments in their policies. Whatever they could be...