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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Moscow's New Hard Line On Chechnya

Washington, 9 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow's new hard line on Chechnya, as enunciated by Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and the Federation Council yesterday, is likely to lead to a resumption of a war that has already cost more than 100,000 lives.

Speaking to the upper house of the Russian parliament, Chernomyrdin said that Chechnya will not be allowed to secede from Russia, and that the country's territorial integrity will never be the subject of what he called "haggling."

By itself, this position -- which President Boris Yeltsin and other senior Russian officials also have taken in recent days -- does not necessarily threaten the current ceasefire. After all, the August 31 accord signed by the Chechens and Russian national security chief Aleksandr Lebed anticipates a five-year cooling off period during which both sides should consider what to do next.

But pushed by Russian Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov and other hardliners in the Russian capital, Chernomyrdin has now effectively disowned that agreement. While he praised parts of that accord, the Russian prime minister indicated that the document as a whole has no legal standing, thus ratifying at the highest level a view long pushed by many more junior Russian politicians and officials.

And by so doing, Chernomyrdin gives support to the party of war in Moscow and undermines the party of peace among the Chechens.

That the Russian party of war has gained in strength is suggested by more than just Chernomyrdin's remarks. On the one hand, the Russian government went ahead with the Federation Council discussion on Chechnya even though Lebed, the Russian signatory of the accord, was out of town.

And on the other, many speakers implicitly called for a resumption of the fighting either by making light of the past costs of the war or by suggesting that the Chechens were the only winners from the current ceasefire.

Thus, Russian Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov said that fewer than 19,000 civilians had been killed in the conflict to date, a figure far below the 100,000 plus that Lebed and other Russian officials have given in recent weeks.

And other Federation Council session participants argued that the Chechens were exploiting the current lull to "consolidate" their positions and to "squeeze" the Russians out of that region.

But Chernomyrdin's impact on the Chechen side may be even greater and more fateful, for he has now pulled the rug out from under those among the Chechen leadership who have called for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Such Chechens will now find it difficult to counter other Chechens who can argue that Moscow is not to be trusted -- after all, the Russian government has disowned an agreement its own representative signed -- and who will urge that Chechen forces should prepare to counter what they are likely to see as the preparations for another Russian attack on their homeland.

Consequently, even though Chernomyrdin and the upper house of the Russian parliament said they were for a peaceful resolution of the conflict, a resolution that would reflect the interests of both the Chechen and Russian peoples, their words yesterday make the achievement of such a peace less likely.

Unfortunately, their words simultaneously appear to make the resumption of the fighting there much more so.