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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Let Lebed Continue Peace Talks

Just how dependent the fragile peace in Chechnya is upon the person of Alexander Lebed has become all too clear over the past few days: with Lebed absent, the usual disagreements, rumors and problems on the ground began to spin out of control.


The trouble started when Russian commander Vyacheslav Tikhomirov stopped Russian troop withdrawals because the Chechen side was not abiding by its agreement on prisoner exchanges.


That news, combined with rumors -- in the event untrue -- that both sides were building up forces outside Grozny, led to an uneasy sense that the peace process was on the rocks. Certainly, Lebed's interlocutor, Chechen Aslan Maskhadov, felt this to be the case and said so.


This low-level rhetorical agitation was hardly remarkable. In the month since Lebed's peace deal, Russian troop withdrawals have been "halted" several times before, prisoner exchanges have run into trouble before and both sides have accused the other of threatening actions. But in the past, Lebed had been on the scene every few days to straighten things out with Maskhadov.


This time, when the noises that accompany trouble began to emerge from Grozny, Lebed did not head for the North Caucasus, but Belarus. Worse, the only noise that the Chechen side heard from Moscow was a restatement Saturday of the Kremlin position that Chechnya can never be independent.


Lebed has never said that Chechnya will be independent. But he has constructed a deal whereby there would be five years of peace during which the two sides could find some arrangement, some tricky re-definition of sovereignty, to allow a referendum to be formulated after which all sides could claim victory. Saturday's statement clearly undermined that strategy.


Not that the Chechen leadership is any more reasonable. Chechen separatist leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev has repeatedly said that, as far as he is concerned, the separatists have won the war and Chechnya is now independent. These too are fighting words.


But so long as Lebed and Maskhadov are in place to compromise and hold the peace process on track, what the politicians say around them need not be fatal. Everybody involved understands the political pressures working against any concession or admission of defeat by either leadership. Both sides read the other's contradictory statements as obvious "good cop-bad cop" routines.


Lebed's absence, however, would be fatal to the process, and as Maskhadov intimated, it is ultimately up to the politicians in Moscow to decide what Lebed is allowed to do. Lebed said Monday that he will return to Chechnya for talks Tuesday. It will not be a moment too soon.