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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

War Zone Moves to Politics

Yegor Stroyev, the speaker of the Federation Council and one of Russia's wiliest politicians, observed acutely the other day that Chechnya had become a "political battlefield" in which the future of Chechnya itself was not the main issue.


Instead, the Chechen issue has become a lightning conductor for various Russian politicians to further their own political agenda. In the first place, that is true of Alexander Lebed, for whom Chechnya has become his springboard to the presidency. Now it seems Lebed is not so interested in the details of the peace settlement that he wants to be bogged down in it. He let drop a telling phrase last week in the State Duma when he said his mission to Chechnya was "almost over." He had secured a peace agreement at Khasasvyurt, and it was up to others to see that it worked.


Lebed's advantage over his rivals in Moscow was that he had never been implicated in the Chechen war. Apart from one puzzling period of silence in July, he has been wholly consistent in condemning the Chechen war, and he has always expressed his contempt for the dirty wars around Russia's frontiers in the self-proclaimed Transdnestr republic and Tajikistan.


That opposition made him the ideal negotiating partner for the Chechen rebels and made it easier for him to make compromises and sign a deal that was objectively worse for Moscow than the one signed in Grozny last summer.


"It was your fault that this war happened," he can say to his critics. "I was just making the best of a bad job."


And soon he may take up the cause of Tajikistan or corruption, for example, and add, "You deal with Chechnya, I have another job to do now.


Viktor Chernomyrdin is in a trickier position. He was manifestly never a strong supporter of the war. That was clear as early as December 1994 when, in contrast to Boris Yeltsin, he declared himself ready to meet Dzhokhar Dudayev. As prime minister, it is in his clear interest to see the war end. In the first place, it had become the playground of his political rivals in the military-industrial complex, and secondly it was knocking enormous holes in the budget.


But for obvious reasons, Chernomyrdin also does not want Lebed to get all the glory. That explains what was at first his rather lukewarm endorsement of the Khasavyurt accord. When it seemed genuinely to be bearing fruit, he joined Lebed last Thursday in playing the peacemaker once more and shaking the hand of Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev.


As for the Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov, I wonder if his rantings and ravings are 100 percent genuine. After all, it was Kulikov who held the first peace talks of the whole war in February 1995 in Ingushetia with Aslan Maskhadov, when he was the Russian commander on the ground. And Usman Imayev, the chief Chechen negotiator at last summer's talks, remembers Kulikov as a man he could do business with and who kept his word.


Kulikov's explosions of rage would seem partly to stem from purely personal resentment of Lebed, who had the daring to call in public for his resignation. But more importantly, they come from the knowledge that all regular army troops are being pulled out of Chechnya by the end of this month, and it is his men who will take the brunt of any unpleasantness thereafter. He is covering his back.


The most comic performance has come from Yury Luzhkov. If the mayor of New York started preaching about U.S. policy in Haiti, I imagine the American political establishment would be surprised. But Luzhkov is taking potshots at Lebed's peace plan almost every day.


Luzhkov obviously desperately wants to be president, and he is keen to build a new nationalist anti-Caucasian political persona. Chechnya is far away and a good stick to beat Lebed with, and a good way to rid himself of his reputation as a friend of Grozny after having been involved with Chechen business interests.


As far as the Chechens and the conscripts are concerned, the good news is that none of these people -- with the possible exception of General Kulikov -- would seem to have an interest in restarting the war.


The argument is being conducted as a post-mortem on a peace that has already happened. Condemning Lebed is one thing, but sending the teenage soldiers back into the firing line is politically quite another.