. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Premier Approves Lebed's Peace Plan

Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin on Tuesday gave official, if tepid, backing to the peace plan for Chechnya signed by Alexander Lebed over the weekend as he flew to the North Caucasus in an apparent attempt to seize back the initiative in directing policy for the region.

"The agreements signed by Lebed cause some concern but on the whole we consider them right," Chernomyrdin told a meeting of regional officials in Nalchik, capital of the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkariya, Reuters reported. "We should act within the framework of these agreements and keep to their thrust."

Details of Lebed's peace deal remain sketchy, but it provides for troop withdrawals, the creation of a joint commission to govern the republic, and a delay of five years before the central issue of Chechnya's political status is resolved.

But in blessing the plan, Chernomyrdin seemed anxious to play down Lebed's role in the peace process, and to paint the unpredictable general as just another member of the government's negotiating team.

Interfax reported Chernomyrdin as saying Lebed had "stuck to the main direction [of government policy], with certain changes from our initial position.

"President Boris Yeltsin's peace plan, corrected in the course of recent events, can be fully realized."

The prime minister has been closely identified with the federal government's efforts to bring peace to Chechnya since his televised negotiations with rebel leader Shamil Basayev during the hostage crisis in Budyonnovsk last year.

On Sunday, Chernomyrdin met separately with Lebed and Yeltsin to discuss the new peace agreement, which Lebed signed in Dagestan with the Chechen chief of staff, Aslan Maskhadov, on Saturday. The prime minister's initial public response was skeptical.

Yeltsin has not met with Lebed since Aug. 14, snubbing several requests for an audience from his National Security Council secretary. The president still has not offered any clear public backing for the agreement with which Lebed claims to have ended the war.

Lebed has made it clear on several occasions that he is bemused by Yeltsin's refusal to meet with him, but Tuesday he shrugged off questions on the issue during a press conference in Moscow.

Asked if he could continue the peace process without Yeltsin's backing, Lebed said, "I can do anything, although open support from the president wouldn't hurt."

In remarks to officers at the Frunze Military Academy, reported in Vechernyaya Moskva on Tuesday, Lebed said that either the president's health prevented the meeting, "or those close to Boris Yeltsin are creating an informational vacuum around him."

But some Kremlin watchers see the cool treatment of Lebed as evidence of a succession struggle between the ex-paratrooper and the prime minister, each of whom harbors ambitions to follow Yeltsin into the presidency.

Alexander Minkin, the only journalist present during negotiations between Lebed and Maskhadov over the weekend, wrote in Novaya Gazeta on Tuesday that Chernomyrdin himself was responsible for keeping Lebed from the president.

The prime minister was also responsible for a recent statement by Doku Zavgayev, head of the Moscow-backed government in Chechnya, in which Zavgayev charged that Lebed had "surrendered" Grozny and brought about a "coup d'?tat," Minkin charged.

The only goal of Chernomyrdin's team was to "survive the changing of the guard," Minkin wrote and, from this point of view, Chechnya was nothing but a "card in the election campaign."

"It is not important if there is killing there or not, only that Lebed burn. His authority in the eyes of the voters must be destroyed," Minkin wrote.

Yusup Soslambekov, president of the Confederation of Caucasian Peoples, which proposes restoring power in Chechnya to the separatist government elected in 1991, agreed the Chechen war has already become a campaign issue.

"A new battle for power in Russia has already begun," he said in a telephone interview in Moscow.

Not all analysts agreed, however. Andrei Piontkowsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies, blasted the Minkin article as "absolutely unjust" to Chernomyrdin, adding that it had likely been written with Lebed's consent.

"Chernomyrdin is doing everything possible to support Lebed -- not Lebed personally, but the idea of a peaceful settlement," Piontkowsky said.

"Actually he is selling the results of Lebed's work to the president and, judging by today's statements, he has sold them successfully."

Piontkowsky explained Yeltsin's failure to receive Lebed as a result of the president's poor health, his jealousy of other politicians and his reluctance to face analysis of his own responsibility for the conflict, which according to Lebed has claimed some 80,000 lives.

"Yeltsin initiated this war. If Lebed finally succeeds in ending it, the next day the question will be asked: What did 80,000 people die for?" Piontkowsky asked. "This question will be addressed to only one person -- to Yeltsin."

, adding that Chernomyrdin's one-day trip to Nalchik was also "one of the elements of his own campaign to become the next president of Russia -- which has already begun."