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Press Review: Peace in Chechnya? Time for Action to Follow Words

Prague, May 28 (RFE/RL) -- Leaders of the Chechen rebels signed a treaty with Boris Yeltsin's administration yesterday calling for an end to fighting by June 1 in the breakway republic. Press commentary today greets the pact with cautious approval and lively skepticism. As The New York Times' account said, "It is hard to see how this treaty will produce a lasting peace in a region that has struggled with Russia for independence for nearly three centuries."

Michael Specter writes today in The Times: "No treaty has been signed at this level between the two sides before. A partial accord signed last July proved ineffective. (Yesterday's) agreement is likely to buy Yeltsin some vital time -- and the support of moderates -- that he so desperately needs if he is to defeat his communist challenger, Gennadi Zyuganov.... None of the 'key problems of peace' that Yeltsin referred to have been addressed, let alone resolved. Chechnya's bid for independence, the reason the war began in December 1994, was not discussed (yesterday). And there is still no timetable for the withdrawal of tens of thousands of Russian troops who remain in the region."

In an editorial today, the Frankfurter Rundschau attributes the whole exercise to politics. The newspaper says: "It is worth noticing what ultimate politics can bring about. Even though a bandit and lawbreaker, the Chechen rebel leader (Zelimkhan) Yanderbiyev sits down as an acknowledged equal negotiating partner in Moscow. And no less than President Yeltsin receives his flown-in war opponent. What just a short time ago was impossible to conceive, now suddenly in a great hurry is able to be arranged."

London Times writer Richard Beeston writes in the newspaper today from Moscow: "If yesterday's peace agreement does silence finally the guns in Chechnya, it could be enough to clinch a reelection victory for President Yeltsin, who admitted himself that the conflict was both his biggest disappointment and political liability." Beeston says: "Although there are individual Chechen commanders who have reservations about making any deals with the Kremlin leader, most concluded that they would gain more from President Yeltsin in the run-up to his tough reelection race than after voting. It also was acknowledged widely that no matter how bad the present situation, a Communist president in the Kremlin could be even more ruthless than the incumbent."

Elizbeth Shogren writes in today's Los Angeles Times: "As he sat down across the table from rebel leader Zelimkhan A. Yanderbiyev for the three-hour session, Yeltsin was plainly aware of the deep scar that the war with the breakaway republic has seared in his public image.... Both parties were acutely aware of the political stakes riding on (yesterday's) meeting.... By agreeing to attend the talks, despite Yeltsin's condition that Chechen independence would not be discussed, the rebel leaders were clearly indicating their eagerness to reach a resolution. At least one reason for their willingness was a successful Russian offensive on Saturday, during which the Russian Army seized Bamut, a former Soviet missile base that was the last rebel stronghold, after weeks of fierce battles."

The British newspaper The Independent carries an analysis today from Moscow by Phil Reeves and Helen Womack. They say: "Boris Yeltsin last night pulled off one of the most audacious and unlikely triumphs of his presidency, after bringing the leader of the Chechen rebels to the Kremlin and signing a ceasefire agreement within hours of his arrival.... The deal, which happened so fast it seems certain to have been (prearranged), came two hours after Mr. Yeltsin sat down in the Kremlin with Zelmkhan Yandarbiyev, successor to Dzhokhar Dudayev, who was assassinated last month. It comes into force on Saturday.... A deal was possible because either side had nothing to lose and much to gain."

The Washington Post's Lee Hockstader writes today: "There is no guarantee that this peace initiative will not unravel as others have. It also was apparent that neither side had dealt in Monday's talks with any of the political questions surrounding the war.... However, both Yeltsin and Yandarbiyev desperately need a letup in the fighting, and the accord may offer at least that.... The last high-profile peace initiative in the grinding war was Yeltsin's unilateral declaration of a cease-fire on March 31, which had little effect. For one thing, the Chechen rebels were not consulted. Russian forces appeared to ignore Yeltsin's order, pressing their spring offensive while calling it 'special operations.' "

John Thornhill comments today in Britain's Financial Times: "Mr. Yanderbiyev, a fierce nationalist who assumed the leadership of the Chechen resistance movement after Mr. Dzhokhar Dudayev was killed in a Russian rocket attack last month, had vowed previously to continue the independence fight to the death. But Chechen leaders appear to have realized they were in a good position to extract concessions from Mr. Yeltsin before next month's presidential elections."

"With just over two weeks to go before the election, some supporters warn that Mr. Yeltsin's brash peace initiative... may yet backfire," Neela Banerjee and Steve Liesman say in an analysis in today's The Wall Street Journal Europe. The writers go on: "Mr. Yanderbiyev, who only recently took power..., needed the talks to help him consolidate his power over rebel leaders. For Mr. Yeltsin, who has resisted such a meeting during the entire course of the war, progress in Chechen peace talks could mean the difference between victory and defeat in the June 16 elections. (A) danger for Mr. Yeltsin is (failing to secure) the cooperation of the Russian army..... Within the ranks of the army, many generals want to finish what they were forced to start."

Britain's The Daily Telegraph says today in an editorial: "Ceasefires in war-ravaged Chechnya have a habit of lasting no more than a couple of days. But the document signed in the Kremlin last night seems destined to be more lasting.... Both sides have an interest in stopping the fighting for the immediate future.... The Chechens need a respite from the fighting after suffering a series of losses over the past month."