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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Is Chechnya Tet or Tatarstan?

Washington, 14 August 1996 (RFE/RL) -- In its attempt to come to terms with the latest upsurge of violence in Chechnya, the Russian government has gone through the same three stages people normally do when confronted with anything beyond their experience: denial, analogy, and finally, grudging acceptance of the uniqueness of the new situation.

Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, some Russian officials continue to deny that there is any real problem in Chechnya and to insist that the Russian military will soon put things in order.

At times, even Russian President Boris Yeltsin has taken that position. But now the mounting death toll and the increasing opposition of the Russian people to this brutal war has made that position unsustainable. It has forced him and others to look for a better explanation and a way out.

Some Russian officials and journalists are engaged in a search for some analogy to what is happening in Chechnya, a model that will allow them to understand and cope with the Chechen challenge.

During the last few days, Russian commentators and officials have appeared to compete with each other in suggesting the best analogy to the latest upsurge in the fighting.

Some Russian journalists compare the Chechen attack on Grozny with the 1968 Viet Cong Tet offensive against American forces in Vietnam, the attack that ultimately presaged the American defeat.

Others, such as Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, say that Russia must do everything it can to avoid an "Afghan scenario" in Chechnya. It is not clear whether this analogy suggests the use of even more massive force or complete withdrawal.

Still a third group of Russian analysts suggests that the Chechens, properly handled, can still be induced to follow the path of Tatarstan and agree to a power-sharing arrangement of autonomy short of independence.

None of these analogies, however, is entirely satisfactory. Consequently, some Russian officials are beginning to look more closely at the specific features of Chechnya and the Chechen cause.

One of these is Yeltsin's Security Council chief, former General Aleksandr Lebed. In the last three days, he has argued that Moscow must view Chechnya as unique and not assume that Russian policy there will have an automatic resonance elsewhere.

Speaking to journalists in Moscow on Monday, Lebed pointedly noted that Russians must recall their past dealings with the Chechens.

"In the last century," Lebed said, "Russia was unable to defeat the Chechens by force. Diplomacy brought peace. That's how we must act today as well."

While Lebed's reading of Russian history may be less than perfect, his argument is a profound and important one. Moreover, it represents a serious challenge to Yeltsin's approach to Chechnya.

Yeltsin's decision to use force in Chechnya has been based on the conviction -- shared by many in Russia and the West -- that Moscow had to oppose Chechen secession lest some or all of the other 21 non-Russian regions within the Russian Federation follow Grozny and destroy the new Russian state.

But that view, combined with the failures and brutality of the Russian army in Chechnya, has prevented the Russian government from finding a way out until now.

Consequently, by arguing that the Chechens really are different and thus can be dealt with differently, Lebed has broken out of the false analogy in which Yeltsin and his government have been caught.

Whether this intellectual breakthrough, combined with the ceasefire announced Tuesday, leads to independence for Chechnya remains to be seen. But Lebed's latest remarks make that and peace in the North Caucasus possible, something Yeltsin's current policy does not.