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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Chechnya Again Divides Moscow

Washington, 28 November 1996 (RFE/RL) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin's effort to make peace in Chechnya is generating every bit as much opposition among Moscow politicians as did his earlier use of force against that North Caucasian republic.

Yeltsin's announcement last Sunday that Moscow would soon withdraw the last Russian troops from Chechnya immediately sparked calls in the Duma for his impeachment and for a no confidence vote this Friday against his prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin.

And the publication on Wednesday of the text of the agreement between Chernomyrdin and Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov, an agreement which has the form of one between two independent states, seems likely to exacerbate the dispute still further.

Even before the agreement was published, Communist deputies had denounced Yeltsin's decision to withdraw Russian troops as a betrayal of the nation. And they claimed that they had the votes to begin impeachment proceedings and to pass a no confidence motion.

Nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky went even further. He told Moscow's NTV this week that Yeltsin's action could only be described as "monstrous" and in fact represented "the beginning of the break-up of Russia."

"First goes Chechnya, then other North Caucasus republics, then the Volga republics and then the Siberian ones," Zhirinovsky said, leaving a Russian republic stretching only "from Voronezh to Arkhangelsk."

And even moderate leaders who have opposed the war in the past and who seek some form of peaceful resolution were critical of what Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin have done.

Yabloko party leader Vladimir Lukin, for example, announced that he and his party "are against the policies of the war party but we are also against the policies of the party of unconditional capitulation."

In the face of this criticism, Yeltsin's actions found few supporters, and most of these were far from enthusiastic.

Reflecting this lukewarm support, one Moscow newspaper commentary this week noted that "any agreement will be bad, but if we don't sign, things will be even worse." And it suggested that those who now oppose the agreement because it threatens Russia's territorial integrity should themselves be willing to go to Chechnya and renew the fighting.

But the real problem facing everyone in Russia was perhaps best summed up by Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov. Although clearly unhappy with the latest accord, he suggested that "there is no other way to solve the Chechen issue at the present time."

That is because no one can find a formula that will simultaneously satisfy Moscow, the Chechens, Russian businessmen, and those in the Parliament who continue to talk about Russia's territorial "indivisibility."

Is there in fact any way out of what looks like yet another political impasse on Chechnya in Moscow?

For three reasons, the answer is almost certainly yes.

First, despite their threats and harsh language, few Duma deputies are prepared to risk having Yeltsin dissolve the Parliament, something that would likely follow any move against him or his government. Consequently, those calling for his impeachment or a vote of no confidence in his government are likely to fail, if they even try at all.

Second, the Chechens in recent weeks have avoided taking any step that could provoke the Russian population at large to restarting the war. While Russian politicians may be willing to dispatch Russian troops to Chechnya, polls suggest and Yeltsin certainly understands that ever fewer Russians are prepared to go.

And third, and because of this, Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin appear to have found a way out of the latest Chechen impasse, a resolution of the conflict that will be supported by many Russians if not by all Russian politicians.

Their strategy, which builds on that of dismissed Russian national security aide Aleksandr Lebed, is three-pronged: First, they have met all Chechen demands except the final one -- outright recognition of Chechen independence -- in the hopes that de facto independence will satisfy at least some war-weary Chechens.

Second, they have pushed off any final decision on that both beyond the Chechen elections next year and beyond the immediate agreements, thus playing for time in both capitals.

And third, they have enlisted the aid of Russian businessmen to try to rope in the Chechens. On the one hand, Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin have portrayed their agreement as benefitting the oil and gas lobby, thus removing one of the major supporters from the earlier Moscow party of war.

And on the other, they have sought to employ Russian companies to project Russian political power into Chechnya by involving individual Chechen leaders in the activities of these firms.

None of these steps will prevent this or future rhetorical flareups in Moscow, but together they may provide the fig leaf the Russian government needs to cover the realities on the ground: the Russian army lost, the Chechens won, and no one -- regardless of what he may say -- is now ready to restart the fighting.