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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Winning And Losing In Chechnya

Prague, 28 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - Last year, Russia lost Chechnya on the battlefield. On Monday, it lost Chechnya again -- but this time at the ballot box.

And that second defeat seems likely to have greater consequences for both Moscow and Chechnya than did the military one.

But this latest Russian defeat does not mean that the Chechens can yet claim the victory they seek, at least not in the immediate future.

Although the results from Monday's presidential and parliamentary elections in Chechnya are not yet complete, the holding of this poll is likely to prove far more important than the individuals chosen or rejected.

First, all the major candidates for president are committed to the idea of Chechen independence. As a result, whoever is chosen can count on the support of his opponents on this point if no other.

Second, the elections will legitimate the Chechen government in a way that will have an impact both on Grozny's relationship with Moscow and on the expectations of the Chechen people about their own regime. And these two developments point in very different directions.

On the one hand, the Russian government will find it far harder to dismiss the Chechen leaders as "bandits" or "terrorists." And that will make it more difficult for the Russian government to keep the Chechens from pursuing their goal of full independence -- unless Moscow is prepared to resume an unpopular war.

On the other, the election will also mean that the Chechen people are certain to expect their government to deliver on services and other promises. And thus the new regime will be forced to spend more time worrying about the local needs of its own people than on contesting the Russians for power.

And third, this vote will transform the Chechen struggle from a military to a political one. In addition to making it more difficult for Moscow in talks with Chechnya, it is likely to have a broader impact on the other regions within the Russian Federation.

That will be particularly true if the Russian government seeks to delay a decision on Chechen independence until the end of the five-year waiting period specified in the August 1996 accord.

As many have noted, no other region in the Russian Federation was or is prepared to fight for independence as the Chechens have. But that does not mean that they have given up their hopes for greater autonomy or even learned the Chechen lesson that Moscow hoped to teach.

Instead of learning that any moves toward exit could and would be crushed, many of these regions have learned that they can act as independently as they want as long as they do not declare that they want independence.

Indeed, many of Russia's regions now enjoy more real independent decision-making power than Chechnya has.

But if Moscow begins a prolonged political discussion with Chechnya on the terms of exit could have the effect of restarting drives for possible withdrawal from the Russian Federation by other groups, if the latter concluded that political talks could achieve this end.

And that is likely to be true despite suggestions that the only reason the Chechen elections have the significance they do is because the Chechens had already fought and won on the battlefield.

On Monday, one report from Moscow suggests at least some Russian leaders understand this danger and may want to cut their losses in Chechnya by preparing for its independence.

Russian Interior Minister Anatoliy Kulikov told Interfax that Moscow has decided to reinforce the administrative border between Russia and Chechnya by setting up military command posts there.

Some may see this step as an attempt to intimidate the Chechens during their election, but others -- including the Chechens -- are likely to view it as further evidence that the already-completed Russian military withdrawal will soon lead to a political retreat as well.

But despite the Russian losses in these elections, the Chechens have not yet won their final victory.

The forces arrayed against them are still impressive: the Russian security forces remain far from negligible, Moscow is certain to play the oil weapon against Chechnya, and the opposition of the international community to any "secession from secession" in the post-Soviet environment combine to make their future fight difficult.

Consequently, the Chechens may not see their dream of independence realized as soon as they hope. But they can be confident that the vote this week almost certainly represented a more important victory for their cause than any they won in battle.