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Chechnya Peace Talks Set to Avoid Independence Issue

Moscow, May 27 (RFE/RL) -- Chechen Chief military commander Aslan Maskhadov says that Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Chechen separatist leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev are unlikely to discuss the issue of Chechnya's independence in their talks in Moscow today.

Maskhadov told reporters last week that the two men are likely to declare a "ceasefire in Chechnya" and "sign a document to end the war and open a peace process."

For his part, Yeltsin told reporters during last week campaign stop in Vorkuta that he was optimistic about "reaching agreement on complete termination of armed clashes." But he also said that "of course, we shall not surrender Chechnya."

Maskhadov said that the issue of Chechnya independence is likely to be "set aside" at today's talks. Instead, negotiations will focus on last year's demilitarization agreement.

Under that accord both sides were to declare a ceasefire, separatist fighters were to surrender some weapons, and Russian troops were to start a staged withdrawal from Chechnya. The issue of Chechnya's political status was to be taken up later, during political negotiations.

But such negotiations never took place. And the deal collapsed a short time after being signed on July 30,with fighting becoming even more intense.

Moscow has consistently ruled out negotiations on Chechnya independence, while Chechen separatists have refused to discuss anything less.

Maskhadov said that the Chechen leaders have not changed their stand. "We do not foresee any concession on the status of the republic," he said. But then he added that talks on Chechnya independence can wait until after Russia's presidential election. He said that for now "we have to stop the war; this is the main problem and it is important both for Yeltsin and for us."

Yandarbiyev and his delegation are to arrive in Moscow today and the talks are likely to open immediately, either in the Kremlin or in one of the government's residences outside the Russian capital.

Yeltsin has never acknowledged the Chechen separatists fighters as a political force, usually calling them "bandits" and "terrorists." But on this occasion he has publicly guaranteed security for the Chechen delegation during its stay in Moscow. The aircraft carrying Chechen representatives is scheduled to land at Moscow's Vnukovo airport usually reserved for official governmental delegations.

A meeting with Yeltsin has always been one of the separatists' main demands. Yandarbiyev's predecessor, Dzhokhar Dudayev sought to meet the Russian president ever since Chechnya's unilateral independence declaration in 1991, but Moscow never accepted the idea.

Now, just over one month after Dudayev's death (April 21), the Kremlin is agreeable to direct talks with the Chechens. And Yeltsin has said that he would make a promised visit to the Chechen capital, Grozny following the meeting in Moscow.

Maskhadov said that the decision to let Yandarbiyev go to Moscow has been endorsed last week by separatist field commanders, including hard-liner Shamil Basayev, at a two-day meeting near the Chechen stronghold of Vedeno. Maskhadov said the commanders had agreed to the talks because both sides are tired of war.

He also said that the Chechens thought that the Russian presidential election campaign may give them a good chance to negotiate an acceptable ceasefire deal with Yeltsin.

But by coming to Moscow for talks, the Chechen separatists seem also endorsing Yeltsin's re-election bid. That has not been lost on the Chechens themselves. Their action reflects an opposition to the communists.

Maskhadov said the Chechens could never trust the communists, and recalled the forced deportation of nearly the entire Chechen nation to Central Asia in 1944.

Yeltsin's main opponent in the presidential election, communist leader Gennady Zyuganov has said he "cannot believe that the meeting will be a success." But Zyuganov himself has consistently failed to say what he would and how the communists could reach peace in Chechnya.

The Moscow talks are also treated with misgivings by Russia's military leaders. Defense Minister Pavel Grachev has said that they are "doomed to failure." And Chief of Staff Mikhail Kolesnikov has told the State Duma that Russian troops have claimed a victory at the Chechen stronghold of Bamut in continuing armed operations. The Chechen commanders have denied that claim.

In the meantime, the Russian media continue to report widespread military operations in various parts of the rebellious republic. These are said to show a consistent pattern: Russian artillery bombardments followed by attacks on selected villages, then Chechen counterattacks, frequently staged at night. When Russian withdraw from a conquered village, the Chechens retake it again. And the circle commence again with bombardments, assaults and counterattacks, seizures and retreats. There is no sign that this will stop in the foreseeable future. The current talks were set up with the help of Tim Guldimann, head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe mission in Grozny. Guldimann attended the Vedeno gathering and acted as a mediator between Yandarbiyev and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

Guldimann's mission follows that of Tatarstan's President Mintimer Shaimiyev. He also was to act as a mediator. Shaimiyev's political advisor, Raphael Khakimov, met in Chechnya with Dudayev's representatives. Khakimov told RFE/RL last week that the Tatarstan leader was willing to set up a meeting between Yeltsin and the Chechens in Kazan and was ready to assist in any negotiations.

The current talks in Moscw are designed to introduce a measure of relief. Clearly, both parties need it now more than ever.