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Toward a Chechen Peace Process?

Washington, May 29 (RFE/RL) - Boris Yeltsin's decision to sign an accord with Chechen leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev in Moscow and then to make a brief visit to Chechnya itself may give the Russian president a reelection boost, but it may also represent a major victory for the Chechens in their longstanding drive toward independence.

Yeltsin's decision reflects three obvious election-driven calculations on his part:

First, Yeltsin had promised to resolve the Chechen crisis before the election. Now, he can claim that he has. Moreover, he can use the symbolism of a Chechen coming to Moscow ahead of his going to Chechnya to underscore in the minds of Russian voters that he has blocked Chechen secession.

Second, Yeltsin can suggest to Russian voters weary of the Chechen conflict that his much ballyhooed peace plan is actually bearing fruit. That will win him points with Western leaders such as U.S. President Bill Clinton and German Chancelor Helmut Kohl, both of whom last week welcomed the opening of talks between Moscow and the Chechens.

And third, by indicating that there will be future sessions between himself and the Chechens, Yeltsin can convey that a peace process is starting without having to indicate what its outcome might be anytime before the Russian presidential vote.

But for the Chechens, these meetings and the cease-fire agreement that they have produced have a very different meaning: It is not part of presidential elections but rather a major step forward in their campaign for greater autonomy and ultimate independence.

First and most important, they have apparently forced Yeltsin into agreeing to direct talks, something the Russian president had long resisted. In and of itself, that gives them a status they have badly wanted.

Second, a representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was at the talks between Yeltsin and Yandarbiyev. While that does not "internationalize" the Chechen issue in the way that the Chechens have sought, it does represent a major Russian retreat in protocol terms and hence a major Chechen advance.

And third, the talks themselves have attracted immense media coverage to the Chechen conflict and cause, something largely absent during the last year except when the Chechens have attacked Russians outside of Chechnya itself.

Perhaps most important, the meeting and the media attention it already attracted are likely to create expectations of progress in both the two parties most directly involved and in others as well. And such expectations of a continuing peace process are likely to become a force in their own right.

Yeltsin is likely to have to show that he is committed to peace, almost certainly reducing military actions against the Chechens even in the face of cease-fire violations and possibly granting to Chechnya rights far greater than any other constituent unit of the Russian Federation.

At the same time, the Chechens will have to demonstrate that they are serious about peace, willing to compromise, and able to adopt a step by step approach to their goal.

Many others will be watching to see how this process evolves. Other non-Russian republics within the Russian Federation will be following developments to see if Yeltsin really does agree to give the Chechens more than he has given them.

And the West will be watching to see whether Yeltsin will follow through on his promises or not and whether the Chechens are more or less willing to compromise than many in the West have assumed them to be.

In short, what Yeltsin has chosen to do as an electoral ploy may turn out to be something else entirely.