Prague, April 25 (RFE/RL) - Western press commentary focuses today on the death of Chechen separatist leader Dzhokhar Dudayev and its possible effect on the war in Chechnya. Dudayev was killed Sunday night during a rocket attack as he spoke on a satellite phone in Chechnya.
The Financial Times says today in a news analysis that Dudayev was "a human metaphor for the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the early 1990s he joined in "supporting the national independence movements which sprang up across the crumbling empire. . . . Mr. Dudayev became the central figure in a bloody war which many observers believe has fatally weakened Russia's fragile democracy."
The analysis continues: Analysts are divided on the implications of Mr. Dudayev's death: some warn that it could spark a fresh outburst of violence as Chechen fighters avenge their leader's death, while others predict that without its charismatic president the Chechen resistance will crumble. But they agree that the killing is likely to be a turning point in the Chechen conflict." Herbert Kremp writes today in a commentary in Die Welt that Dudayev's death could be "an advantage for the campaigner Yeltsin who has told the Russians that the bloody fight in the Caucasus will be ended. The important question now is if the resistance front in the mountain region breaks down or if a regional leader continues the war."
Richard Beeston says today in a news analysis in the London Times: . . . "Dudayev's removal could give Yeltsin the chance to reopen dialogue. A deal before June's presidential elections could give him a chance to reopen dialogue. A deal before June's presidential elections would be a huge asset. There is a real fear, however, that the rebel movement could splinter into rival groups. If that happens, the Russians could find they have made a deal with one faction but still face guerrilla operations from hardline groups."
Die Tageszeitung says in a news analysis that Dudayev's death means a weakness in the Chechen side not because Dudayev was so smart "but because he was a symbolic and living integration figure. This figure is now missing and a new one has to be built. But in longer terms, the Russian effort to take back Chechnya by force is more complicated now."
The International Herald Tribune comments today on Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, who has been named to succeed Dudayev as Chechen separatist leader. Sergei A. Kovalev, the Russian human rights advocate, says "it will be difficult to negotiate with Yandarbiyev. This politician tries to be in the shade, but his statements are the most extreme."
Zenon Kuchciak, the deputy chief of the Grozny mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, also said that "Mr. Yandarbiyev's elevation would be unlikely to signal a change in policy."
Steve Liesman writes today in The Wall Street Journal Europe: "The death of Russia's most wanted man is likely to prolong the Chechen war for independence and complicate President Boris Yeltsin's re-election campaign.... The death of the Chechen president could set back the already uncertain peace process.... The immediate danger appeared to be rebel retaliation, either in the form of a terrorist attack or the assassination of a high-level Russian official."
Liesman continues: "Most important for Mr. Yeltsin is who emerges at the helm of the rebel forces. Analysts said Mr. Yandarbiyev lacked the stature to retain control.... A struggle is expected among the Chechen leadership that will leave the Russian side wondering with whom it should be negotiating. Such a delay could hurt Mr. Yeltsin." John Thornhill, writing today in the Financial Times, says "Mr. Yandarbiyev has adopted a hardline position towards Moscow in the past but wields far less authority within the resistance movement than Mr. Dudayev. It seems likely that more authority will devolve to prominent field commanders, such as Mr. Shamil Basayev, the radical Chechen leader who led the hostage-taking raid on Budennovsk last year, and Mr. Aslan Maskhadov, the seemingly more moderate Chechen military commander who conducted peace talks last summer."
The Independent says today that "Dzhokhar Dudayev . . . was buried yesterday, and so was any immediate chance of peace in the republic."
The Daily Telegraph says today that Yandarbiyev is seen "as a nominal figure and is not known to enjoy strong support from either the Chechen tribes or the fighters. There are doubts that he will remain in control for long and some experts are predicting a civil war between the Chechen commanders. In his first statement, Mr. Yandarbiyev said: "The tragic death of the first president of Chechnya has not destroyed our people. We are ready to continue the struggle for independence."
David Hearst writes today in The Guardian that "Mr. Yeltsin .... played down the importance of Dudayev's death. "With or without Dudayev, we will wind up everything in Chechnya with peace. We must be on the alert, as the rebels may intensify their activity."
Hearst continues: "Dudayev's death further complicates the situation for Mr. Yeltsin.... Russian generals were openly pinning their hopes on the re-emergence of Dudayev's chief of staff, Aslan Maskhadov. He was the chief rebel negotiator in talks in Grozny with the Russian military, and is seen as a dove. But there are also signs of potential splits in the top command of the Chechen separatist army. Mr. Basayev had publicly criticized Dudayev over funding for commanders in the field. Mr. Yandarbiyev is reported to have control of the purse strings for the rebel cause. Mr. Maskhadov is popular in the villages in the east and southeast of Chechnya. But in the west there are other warlords, such as Akmed Zakayev and Ruslan Gelayev."
Hearst concludes: "Dudayev now passes into the status of a martyr for the Chechen nation. He was a superb military strategist, responsible for keeping at bay the largest army in Europe for 16 months. Politically, however, Dudayev's legacy is mixed. His actions provoked Moscow to the point where it had no alternative but to invade. Over 40,000 civilians have died in the war and the country is devastated."