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Chechnya Dominates Russian Presidential Race

Prague, April 3 (RFE/RL) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin cannot afford to pull his troops out of Chechnya. That would be admitting defeat. And it would cost him his re-election. Yeltsin also says he cannot afford to let the war continue, or he will not win a second term.

The result was something akin to an "April Fool's" peace plan, which has unleashed much ink but halted no bullets.

Yeltsin's generals, under the guise of self-defense, continue to battle the separatists across southern Chechnya and Chechen leaders continue to scoff at the Kremlin. In short, little has changed.

Yeltsin's peace plan, clearly timed with an eye to Russia's June presidential elections has so far achieved one goal: it has caught the Communists off balance and highlighted their lack of any original ideas to end the conflict. But Yeltsin is the one who began the armed conflict in Chechnya and for him, the conflict remains as intractable as ever.

The Russian press is nearly unanimous in agreeing that no meaningful peace can be achieved without some sort of negotiations with separatist leader Dzhokhar Dudayev.

As part of his plan, Yeltsin proposed indirect negotiations, but he still balks at direct talks and continues to call Dudayev and his men "bandits." Meanwhile, Dudayev, in an yesterday's interview with Azerbaijan's Turan news agency, called Yeltsin's plan an electoral ploy. And he noted that "after the so-called cessation of combat operations, combat actions escalated with new strength in some regions of the republic and are still continuing."

That assertion has been supported by journalists as well as Yeltsin's own commanders in Chechnya, General Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, and his deputy, Major General Stanislav Kondratiev. Both men confirm renewed fighting across southwestern Chechnya.

Dzhokhar Dudayev has said he would be willing to accept indirect negotiations with the Kremlin, but his proposal of intermediaries- former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and Yabloko party leader Grigory Yavlinsky - make such negotiations all but impossible. Both Yavlinsky and Gorbachev are running against Yeltsin in the presidential race. Yeltsin would be unlikely to allow either man to negotiate on his behalf in Chechnya - and take credit for any successes.

In any case, Chechen leader Dudayev clearly wants Yeltsin out of office. He is not likely to agree to any plan that will improve Yeltsin's image before elections unless he can win some key concessions - the main one being Kremlin recognition.

For now, short of a brief pause in the fighting to allow his men to rearm, Dudayev has no need for Yeltsin's peace plan. Yeltsin may be fighting for political survival, but the separatists are fighting for their lives and their homeland. There is no better incentive in war, and the contrast between the highly-disciplined separatists and the demoralized, frightened Russian concripts tells the story.

Yeltsin may have succeeded in momentarily disorienting his Communist rival, but that may not be enough to win the election, as long as the coffins with Russia's soldiers keep returning to Moscow.