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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lebed Puts Deal For Peace On Track

National security chief Alexander Lebed flew to Chechnya on Tuesday amid signs of a breakdown in the peace process and emerged from talks with separatist leaders promising that peace was on track and that Russia would continue troop withdrawals suspended last week.


"We are continuing to move toward peace -- stable, long-term and possibly eternal," Lebed said after meeting with Chechen separatist leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev on Tuesday afternoon.


The two leaders reaffirmed the peace accords signed last month in the village of Khasavyurt and talked over a series of disputes, ranging from an exchange of prisoners to the composition of an interim coalition government for Chechnya, that has led to growing tension over the past week, Interfax reported.


Lebed and Yandarbiyev both also called for Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin to take part in the talks on Chechnya, a move analysts interpreted as an attempt to win top-level support for the peace process, which has so far been Lebed's personal responsibility as presidential representative on Chechnya.


Lebed and Chechen separatist military chief Aslan Maskhadov also announced they would not accept a controversial invitation from the Council of Europe to address a hearing next week on human rights in Chechnya. But after a two-hour meeting with Yandarbiyev, Lebed emerged to say that the coalition government, or temporary administrative council as Moscow has begun calling it, was no longer an issue. "There are no major differences between the federal side and the Chechen opposition with regard to the coalition government's formation," he said.


"What is crucial is that the make-up of the coalition government should contribute to reaching maximum accord in Chechnya," Yandarbiyev said.


Lebed also addressed the problem of a prisoner exchange, which was the justification for Russia's decision last week to halt a withdrawal of troops from Chechnya.


Although no clear details on this point were available, Lebed announced after the talks that the Russian troop withdrawal from Chechnya would continue. He also said the demilitarization of Grozny, a code word for the reduction of the number of separatist fighters in the city, would go ahead.


Earlier, Lebed met at the base at Khankala, outside Grozny, with Russian commanders in Chechnya: Lieutenant General Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, commander of all Russian forces in Chechnya, Anatoly Kvashnin, commander of the North Caucusus military district, and Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov, chief of the central commandant's office in Grozny.


The meeting concentrated on resuming the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya, Lebed's press secretary Alexander Barkhatov told Interfax.


Lebed then travelled Tuesday afternoon to Novy Atagi, 20 kilometers south of Grozny, where he met Yandarbiyev and later Maskhadov, with whom he discussed a prisoner exchange.


Growing tension over the past week, especially the prisoner exchange dispute and the suspension of troop withdrawals, prompted Maskhadov to warn in interviews over the weekend that the peace process remained very "fragile."


Although Lebed's intervention in Chechnya appeared to have averted a breakdown, signs emerged Tuesday that he may be tiring of his role as the lone Kremlin player in the peace process.


His trip to Chechnya on Tuesday would be his "last personal visit," the daily newspaper Segodnya reported, pointing out that now a commission on Chechnya would be meeting weekly.


Lebed's call Tuesday for Chernomyrdin's participation in peace talks, which echoed a statement on the weekend that "further negotiations demand collective wisdom," appeared to be an effort to win more solid backing from the Kremlin leadership, analysts said.


Lebed's statements were more likely an effort to gain top-level backing, rather than a sign that he was being brought back into line, Andrei Piontkowsky of the Moscow Center for Strategic Studies said.


Chernomyrdin, although perhaps tempted to undermine Lebed as his main opponent in a future presidential race, had acted as a shuttle diplomat between Lebed and Yeltsin after the peace deal was signed, Piontkowsky said.


The opposition to Lebed's peace deal was more likely emanating from Yeltsin himself, Piontkowsky said. "Chernomyrdin is in a difficult position. He was always very loyal to Yeltsin, but before when Yeltsin was away he used the chance to try for peace," he said, recalling Chernomyrdin's handling of the Budyonnovsk hostage crisis last year.


Yeltsin's chief of staff, Anatoly Chubais, voiced categorical support for Lebed's efforts in Chechnya in an interview published Wednesday in Izvestia.


Lebed, Chernomyrdin and Chubais were all committed to preventing any breakdown in the peace process, Chubais said. "It is our main task. Because it is not in the interests of Lebed, or Chernomyrdin or Chubais, and, most importantly, not in the interests of Yeltsin or Russia, that what was achieved thanks to the efforts of Lebed in Chechnya be exploded."


The Khasavyurt peace deal provides for a withdrawal of Russian troops, joint control of contested areas and a five-year delay on deciding the question of political independence of Chechnya.


President Ruslan Aushev of Ingushetia, who met Lebed during a stopover at Sleptsovsk airport Tuesday morning, also voiced his support for his former fellow paratrooper's peace effort in an interview with RTR television.


One sign of the latest strain was that Lebed and Maskhadov said Tuesday they would not go to Strasbourg for a Council of Europe hearing on Chechnya on Monday.


The invitation to Lebed and Maskhadov from the council, which is primarily concerned with human rights issues, was heavily criticized in Russia as interference in internal affairs.


Lebed told Russian reporters travelling on his plane Tuesday that he would probably not go to Strasbourg, saying the Chechen rebels' Islamic Shariah law did not respect human rights.


A source close to Maskhadov was quoted on NTV television as saying Maskhadov decided not to go to Strasbourg because of growing difficulties in containing field commanders impatient with Russia's slow troop withdrawal.