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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Premier Slams Chechens for 'Provoking' War

Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin sanctioned Russia's escalation of the war in Chechnya at a key policy meeting Wednesday, blaming Chechen rebels for the bloody collapse of the peace process.

Chernomyrdin said Russia would continue to pursue peace talks, but argued that the Chechen rebel leadership, including Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, with whom President Boris Yeltsin signed a peace deal last month, had lost control.

Speaking at the first post-election meeting of a government commission on solving the Chechen crisis, Chernomyrdin charged that Chechen rebels were responsible for "provoking federal forces to launch massive new military actions."

Chernomyrdin is usually seen as a dove on Chechnya and has often called for peace talks, but his remarks provided a strong signal that Russia is in no hurry to call off a war that has escalated in recent weeks in the wake of the elections.

Despite the cease-fire concluded on the eve of the elections to placate public opposition to the war, Russian forces last week began bombing Chechen villages, breaking the cease-fire -- and raising questions about the sincerity of the Kremlin's desire for peace now that Yeltsin has been safely re-elected.

"You resumed the bloody Chechen war the day after the official voting results were announced," wrote Sergei Kovalyov, Russia's leading human-rights activist, in an open letter Wednesday to Yeltsin and his top security adviser, Alexander Lebed. "I knew from the start that your promises were a lie. But the country believed you. Both of you deceived the 40 million voters who supported you."

Kovalyov's letter, written from the intensive-care unit of a Moscow hospital where he is recovering from a heart attack, was echoed less emotionally by analysts tracking the war.

"Peace talks were never more than a tactical move for either side. The Chechens needed to rearm; the Russians needed to keep Chechnya calm during the presidential elections so there would be no surprises like Budyonnovsk a week before voting day," said Pavel Kandel, an analyst at the Institute of Europe.

Chernomyrdin's comments as reported by Itar-Tass were his sharpest to date. He described June as a honeymoon period during which peace talks were carried out in Nazran and a cease-fire was reached. But he said all that ended July 5. By his count, the cease-fire has now "been violated by the separatists more than 600 times."

"The situation has changed sharply: Firing upon checkpoints, attacks on the state institutions and representatives of the Chechen Republic, thieving and the taking of hostages has continued," Chernomyrdin said. He pinned the escalation of the war on "the resumption of military activity by illegal armed formations and criminal terror by absolutely uncontrollable bands."

He said nothing of the bombing of villages, which has killed dozens of civilians and which most observers argue was the cause of the new round of fighting.

"This is not a new Chernomyrdin; he hasn't removed some mask. This is the same Chernomyrdin who always knows exactly what Yeltsin wants," said Andrei Piontkowsky of the Center for Strategic Studies. "Yeltsin, Lebed and [Lieutenant General Vyacheslav] Tikhomirov [who commands Russian forces in Chechnya] are following the same policies.

"When [Chernomyrdin] had a chance to do some good in Chechnya, he did, but in doing so he has been careful never to set himself on a collision with Yeltsin. Now, Chernomyrdin has washed his hands of [Chechnya], and that corresponds with the new delineation of power in the Kremlin: He handles the economy, and Lebed handles security, and Chernomyrdin likes it that way."

To the rejoicing of liberals, Yeltsin in the past several weeks has fired every prominent member of the so-called "Party of War," as journalists dubbed the loose group of hawkish lieutenants such as former defense minister Pavel Grachev or former deputy prime minister Oleg Soskovets.

But new hardliners such as Lebed and Tikhomirov have stepped forward, apparently with Yeltsin's blessing, and the war has continued.

"There are no wild generals," Kandel said. "Tikhomirov has always been a completely obedient general, and he met with Lebed in Moscow on the eve of these latest attacks. This is all pretty clearly Kremlin policy, from Yeltsin on down."

When running for president, Lebed called for withdrawing Russian troops from Chechnya and holding a referendum there on independence. But he has since changed his position.

Meanwhile, human-rights groups Wednesday called for criminal proceedings against Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov and Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, on grounds they had incited racist hatred by accusing Chechens of last week's trolleybus bombings in Moscow.

Within hours of the second explosion, Luzhkov was on Russian television arguing that all Chechens, "the entire diaspora," should be removed from the city. Kulikov also blamed Chechen rebels, alleging Tuesday he had intercepted cellular phone calls in which Chechens were plotting the bombing.

In an open letter to Russia's prosecutor general Yury Skuratov, Sergei Grigoryants, head of the Glasnost Foundation, said Luzhkov's and Kulikov's pronouncements "are in direct violation of Russian law. The public manner of the announcements point to the intention to incite national discord and stir up popular indignation."