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Russia: Analysis From Washington - Chechen Breakthrough?

Washington, 1 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - A senior Russian official has said that it is "utopian" to think that Chechnya is currently a subject of the Russian Federation.

But these words of Ramazan Abdulatipov, the Russian deputy premier responsible for nationality affairs, appear to mean both less and more than a first glance might suggest.

They certainly do not mean that Moscow is about to recognize Chechnya as an independent country, as the Chechens insist. But they may help set the stage for a process in which that will be the ultimate outcome.

Speaking on Ekho Moskvy radio last Thursday, Abdulatipov said the widespread belief that "Chechnya is the subject of the Russian Federation is utopian." But he added that "one should not forget" that it is "listed" as such in the Russian constitution.

And he said that all sides need to seek a resolution of the current impasse that takes both of these "axioms" into account, rather than deciding in advance that Chechnya must be either a subject of the Russian Federation or an independent state.

Abdulatipov provided no details as to what this special status between independence and subordination to Moscow might look like. Instead, he suggested only that working it out will require the continuation of the "peace process" in the North Caucasus.

Much of this is consistent with what Russian President Boris Yeltsin has said all along: He and other Russian officials have always been willing to give Chechnya a special status if only the Chechens will drop their demands for independence, something they will not do.

But there are three reasons to think that Abdulatipov's remarks last week may point beyond Yeltsin's policy of non-recognition, at least over the longer term.

First, Abdulatipov is the most senior Russian official to approach the issue of Chechnya with a public acknowledgement of the facts on the ground: Since the end of the war, Moscow has not exercised effective control over Chechen territory.

By admitting something that virtually everyone acknowledges in private, Abdulatipov opens the door for a genuine discussion between Moscow and Grozny rather than leaving the talks as a dialogue of the deaf in which each maintains its position while ignoring the other.

By itself, the concession to reality will make it possible for Chechen and Russian officials to expand their cooperation on a variety of issues, including oil transit and fighting crime. And that will serve to build confidence on both sides.

Second, Abdulatipov made an even more important concession to the Chechens, a concession whose dimensions even he may not be willing or able to fully acknowledge.

Arguing that neither side should decide in advance what the final status of Chechnya should be, Abdulatipov in effect was asking the Russians to give up as much as the Chechens.

Moscow must not prejudge the talks anymore than Chechnya, Abdulatipov is saying. And the two sides must get over the notion that the only thing at issue is "a choice between 'entry' or 'exit,' as if there is no other form of cooperation."

And third, Abdulatipov's insistence that "the most important thing is for the peace process to continue" also changes the shape of the board on which the diplomatic game will take place.

On the one hand, his words simply reflect Russian desires not to see a renewal of hostilities or Chechen attacks outside the borders of Chechnya.

On the other, they represent yet another implicit recognition of Chechnya's already very different status. By using the language of international relations, the deputy premier inevitably raises Chechen expectations and undermines Russian ability to dash them.

But even with such an extended period of talks, Abdulatipov and Yeltsin are unlikely to be any more able than was Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was in coming up with an arrangement that gives less than full independence to those who are prepared to fight for it.

And consequently, Abdulatipov's words last week are likely to represent a major breakthrough for Chechnya, even if the Chechens may not be able to claim its full results for sometime to come.