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Analysis From Washington - Yeltsin's Peace Plan

Washington, April 2 (RFE/RL) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin's new peace plan for Chechnya -- a unilateral truce, mediated talks with Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev, willingness to offer Chechnya a status "very close" to independence -- is both less and more than it appears.

On the one hand, the plan -- announced Sunday in a nation-wide television speech -- will yield less than Yeltsin hopes. It is unlikely to lead to a quick end to the fighting. It isn't going to lead to any quick agreement with the Chechens. And it is unlikely to win Yeltsin the support he seeks for his re-election campaign.

On the other hand, the plan will have consequences far beyond those that Yeltsin intends. If nothing else, it represents yet another Russian concession, one that points toward ultimate Chechen independence. It is certain to lead other parts of the Russian Federation to demand more rights from Moscow. And it will lead Yeltsin's communist and nationalist opponents to denounce him for softness.

As his aides have pointed out, Yeltsin's proposal is very much part of his election campaign. But despite the hoopla surrounding his peace plan, it is unlikely to have the impact he intends. Yeltsin's generals have already pointed out that stopping the fighting won't be easy. The Chechens have been offered much less than they want -- real independence and the withdrawal of all Russian troops. And Yeltsin gave his forces political cover for new fighting: he said that his forces would respond harshly to any Chechen action in the future.

Any talks that do follow Yeltsin's announcement will also be difficult.

First, Moscow will find it almost impossible to identify a mediator who would agree to play that role and whom both sides will accept.

Second, Yeltsin has offered the Chechens more than ever before but not as much as the Chechens want. Moscow will find it difficult to back down from what it has now offered, and by changing its position yet again, it has invited the Chechens to continue to press their case in the hopes of winning their ultimate goal.

The only serious limiting factor in this case -- one that Yeltsin may be counting on -- is that the Chechens also are watching who will win the Russian presidential elections. And they may have decided that they can get more from Yeltsin now than they could get from him or any of his much more hardline opponents after the June 1996 vote.

And third, Moscow and Chechnya will not be the only participants in any talks direct or otherwise that do take place. And that may be the most important result of Yeltsin's latest move.

Many of Russia's regions -- first and foremost the non-Russian regions in the North Caucasus and elsewhere but also many distant Russian oblasts and krays as well -- will be watching to see what happens.

If Yeltsin makes more concessions to the Chechens, ever more leaders and peoples in these other territories will soon be asking -- indeed some already are -- why they shouldn't get treatment at least equal to that of the Chechens.

In short, Yeltsin's speech suggests that he may now be caught in the same trap Mikhail Gorbachev found himself in 1990-91 with respect to the Baltic states . If the Russian leader treats one republic better than others, he will find that the others will soon demand equal treatment and thus put pressure on the center that it cannot contain.

If on the other hand, the Russian leader refuses to treat one republic that differs so obviously from the others in a different way, he will be forced to use force. Five years ago, that logic led to the destruction of the Soviet Union when the traditional forces of order found that they had no support and when Yeltsin opposed force in the name of freedom and democracy.

Now, that logic could have equally fateful consequences for the Russian Federation and for Moscow's efforts to reunite some of the former Soviet republics into a new union of one kind or another.

Yeltsin's speech fails to tell us which side he will be on this time.