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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Negotiators Hail Pact as 'Major Step'

Russian negotiators on Monday described a breakthrough military agreement with Chechen rebels as just the start of the peace process, even as fresh gunfire broke out in the breakaway republic, testifying to continuing complications in the region.

"We believe a major step has been taken," Moscow's top negotiator, Nationalities Minister Vyacheslav Mikhailov, told a press conference one day after the military agreement was sealed. "I would not want to use pompous words, but this is a major step toward peace."

The text of the agreement, which was signed in Grozny at 4 a.m. Sunday, has not been made public. But it has been hailed as the most far-reaching to date in the tens of thousands of Russian troops now in Chechnya, and for disarmament of Chechen rebel forces. But it sets no timetable.

The first step in the deal, according to Interfax, is for Russian and Chechen troops to pull back four kilometers from the front lines. After Russian forces have withdrawn entirely and the rebel forces have disarmed, Interfax said, one Russian Army brigade and one Interior Ministry brigade would remain on Chechen territory.

In the shorter term, both sides are expected to exchange prisoners of war and detained civilians within a week. The agreement also calls only for a presidential representative to supervise the post-war transition and for the possibility of free elections in the coming months, which until now have been predicted for November.

The commander of the Russian forces in Chechnya, Interior Minister Alexander Kulikov, said at Monday's press conference in Moscow that the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, which brokered the talks, should play a central role in verifying the agreement's implementation.

But even on Monday it seemed clear that the agreement's implementation would not be easy. Five Russian servicemen were killed when an army column was ambushed, Interfax reported. Other clashes killed a sixth soldier and wounded 20.

Kulikov and the rest of the Russian team that negotiated the peace accord admitted that political stability in the Caucasus was still out of reach, although their treaty affords a sketchy transition toward stable governance.

"Everything will depend now on politicians, on how successfully they will avail themselves of the new situation for the conduct of free democratic elections in the republic," Kulikov said.

Chechen mediators, too, praised the agreement.

"We have legally confirmed the end of hostilities, laying down arms and a step-by-step withdrawal of Russian troops. Now, it's up to us to carry out the agreement, but we are optimistic," chief Chechen negotiator Usman Imayev said Sunday, according to Reuters.

While Mikhailov tried to emphasize the treaty's political underpinnings, stressing such notions as the restoration of the Russian Constitution in Chechnya and the creation of new political authorities there, the agreement does not appear to include any mention of the constitution.

He went on to say that a working group had been set up to begin talks on a political agreement, allowing the negotiators "to untie the knot which has not yet been resolved in this political bloc." He appeared to refer to the issue of Chechnya's status within Russia.

The future of even Sunday's limited military agreement is not assured, however. Dzhokhar Dudayev, head of the secessionist republic, dealt the peace treaty a blow by repudiating it in a weekend interview with Radio Liberty.

The document "can have no legal force," Interfax quoted Dudayev as saying. "The Russian side resorted to blackmail, threats and physical pressure" in forcing Chechen negotiators to sign the treaty.

In Moscow on Monday, officials dismissed Dudayev's reaction, saying that the men who represented Chechnya in peace talks came from the highest ranks of the republic's military and political structures.

Their signatures on the document, they said, prove its authority.

"The agreement is signed, and has been signed by people who have influence and are able to exert influence," Mikhailov said.

The Chechen delegation was headed by Usman Imayev, the Chechen justice minister, and Aslan Maskhadov, the top Chechen military commander.

But Western and Moscow-based analysts said the deal's failure to address the legal status of Chechnya was a serious flaw. Moscow waged war there to stamp out Dudayev's secessionist ambitions, but as battle sputters out in fits, the question of Chechnya's position in Russian refuses to die.

"They're skirting the main issue," said professor John Erickson of the University of Edinburgh. "It does not appear from the present remarks that the idea of independence has died down or has been eliminated."

By calling for elections within the next two or three months, as Mikhailov and his team envision, Moscow may even set itself up for a colossal electoral defeat and the fortification of an independence movement.

If elections are held too soon, argues Michael McFaul, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, ballot boxes will overflow with anti-Russian anger.

"A pro-independence candidate is going to do well, no matter what," McFaul said. "To have the election right now, the obvious pro-independent candidate is Dudayev. They could be giving Dudayev a popular mandate."