Intrigues As Lethal As a War

A cease-fire may be holding in Grozny, but for the politicians enmeshed in the Chechen peace process the war may be deadlier than ever.


On Tuesday, just a day after a spokesman for Security Council chief Alexander Lebed announced that a plot had been uncovered to assassinate the flamboyant ex-general, the Moscow-backed Chechen government headed by Doku Zavgayev announced that Chechen separatists had put a $5 million bounty on Zavgayev's head.


As Lebed has struggled to broker a peace in Chechnya, he has dropped among ordinary Russians, many of whom argue that the bloodshed in the breakaway region is so hard to stop precisely because it is financially profitable for some. Alexander Minkin, a renowned muckraking journalist, summed up that attitude in this week's issue of Novaya Gazeta, writing that, "For people, an epidemic is a horrible thing. But for an undertaker, it is flourishing business."


Minkin was allowed to observe talks between Lebed and Chechen chief of staff Aslan Maskhadov as the two tried to achieve a cease-fire. The negotiations were repeatedly interrupted by radio reports of unauthorized attacks and clashes.


"All of the negotiators felt that it was neither simple nor coincidental that clashes again and again arose, although all in Chechnya knew that peace talks were on," he wrote.


Those who believe the war is being kept alive artificially -- whether by secret generals or scheming politicians or evil profiteers -- find special significance in events major and minor, ranging from Lebed's car being fired upon in Chechnya, which has happened twice since he began his peace mission, to the death last year of another peace-loving general, Anatoly Romanov, who was killed by a bomb at a time when he was struggling to strike a truce with the Chechens.


Certainly, for those politicians who can influence the outcome of the war, careers -- and even lives -- hang in the balance.


"The clash between the party of peace and the party of war is entering its dramatic conclusion," said Andrei Piontkowsky of the Moscow-based Center for Strategic Studies. "The next few days may decide everything."


Zavgayev in particular could be in great danger. An ethnic Chechen who is loathed by separatists as a quisling, he has been disdained by Lebed and would lose his post under Lebed's peace plan. Chechen government officials have been frequent targets of terror and murder in recent times. According to Zavgayev, two deputy chiefs of the Grozny city administration have been shot this year, and earlier this week rebels kidnapped Eles Sigauri, the Chechen culture minister.


Zavgayev heads a government that was virtually handpicked by the Kremlin, although it went through the formality of elections that were widely derided as a fiction.


But if Lebed gets his way, Zavgayev -- who disagrees with any peace plan that leaves weparatists unpunished -- would be dumped from office and left to fend for himself against vengeful and triumphant rebels.


"If Yeltsin signs Lebed's agreement," said Piontkowsky, "Zavgayev may not live for more than a few days."


Zavgayev has been fighting back. At a press conference Tuesday, he accused Lebed of having surrendered Grozny on Aug. 6 -- days before Lebed was even appointed as Yeltsin's envoy to Chechnya -- and of having engineered, through the peace talks, a coup d'?tat for the separatists.


A spokesman for Lebed quickly fired back.


"Zavgayev has to accuse someone in order to save himself," said Security Council spokesman Alexander Barkhatov.


Lebed, in turn, has accused Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov of intentionally losing Grozny on Aug. 6, and demanded that Yeltsin fire him -- a demand Yeltsin refused.


So, in the end, Lebed's position may be weaker than Zavgayev's. He has been given only a lukewarm mandate from Yeltsin, and the president has refused to meet with him despite frequent requests.


Only last Thursday, Yeltsin criticized Lebed's efforts in Chechnya as being insufficient and unsatisfactory. By the time Lebed returned from Chechnya to Moscow last Friday, he appeared to be completely abandoned by his own government.


Only a telegram of congratulations from, and subsequent meeting with, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin put Lebed back on solid political ground.


"Chernomyrdin's actions involving Lebed were noble," said Piontkowsky. "Even though he and Lebed are almost sure to be opponents in the next presidential elections, he put his ambitions aside and gave Lebed some support at a critical moment."


Lebed appears to understand the delicacy of his position; his first assessment of his assignment as Yeltsin's envoy to Chechnya was that it marked a new intrigue to get him to "break his neck."


"There are many people in Moscow waiting for me to sign a document they can turn down and so wreck the peace process," he told Reuters on Sunday.


Some observers have suggested that Yeltsin's brusque treatment of Lebed is rooted less in opposition to peace than to the ex-general's ambitions.


Describing Lebed's maverick tactics in Chechnya, Segodnya wrote Saturday that, "Breaking the unwritten code of behavior for officials and diplomats, he is making a play to capture the romantic image of Yeltsin himself, an act which naturally incites the normal human, male reaction of jealousy in the president."