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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

War Moves to Kremlin

The first of two articles on the Chechen peace agreement. Tomorrow's comment: "A Fatally Flawed Deal."





By Valery Vyzhutovich


The war is over. That's it, we've fought long enough!" These words, pronounced by Security Council Secretary Alexander Lebed after signing a peace agreement with the chief of staff of the Chechen separatist forces, Aslan Maskhadov, sound fine but essentially mean very little.


The fragile peace in Chechnya is held together only by the two generals' word of honor. Both sides only put forward basic principles for further relations: They agreed to put off the question of Chechnya's status for five years, conduct free and democratic elections and form a coalition government in the republic.


Moreover, even these agreements would look more substantial if President Boris Yeltsin showed a strong determination to solve the Chechen crisis once and for all. But the Russian president prefers to keep his distance from all Lebed's attempts to settle the conflict in the rebel republic.


Lebed's political fate is now vested in the Chechen war. His unprecedented rise has upset the balance of forces in government and forced the nomenklatura to devise ways of removing him from office. The most effective way of doing so, it was believed, was to cast him into Chechnya.


By appointing Lebed his plenipotentiary in the Chechen republic (without his consent), Yeltsin seemingly invested him with extensive powers. In reality, however, Lebed plays only a coordinating role. The draft of a peace settlement that he prepared was significantly cut by the president's administration. In the version that was signed by Yeltsin, Lebed does not have the authority to exercise control over carrying out the agreements. Nor does he have the right to give orders to military units involved in the conflict. And his request to be put in charge of the operational group of the Federal Security Service that controls the financial flows in and out of Chechnya was denied. For all his formal powers, Lebed can act only with the sanction of the president.


Lebed tried to break free of the limits that were imposed on him by giving Yeltsin an ultimatum: "It's either I or [Interior Minister Anatoly] Kulikov." By doing so, Lebed was not counting on doing away with the chief of the Interior Ministry with one stroke. He knew that Yeltsin does not easily tolerate ultimatums. Why, then, was it necessary to take such a scandalous step?


The most likely explanation is that Lebed is not certain his peace-making mission will succeed and needs to appeal for mass support. He wants Russian and world opinion to believe he will do everything in his power for peace in Chechnya. But in their obvious efforts to discredit the Security Council chairman, Lebed's opponents are acting as if they were deliberately molding Lebed into the image of a bogatyr, the hero of many Russian folktales, who overcomes all kinds of misfortunes, attacks and obstacles. When General Konstantin Pulikovsky issued his absurd ultimatum to the Chechen rebel forces, Yeltsin chose a place on the Valdai heights to rest, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin got ready for the first government session, chief of staff Anatoly Chubais was somewhere in Denmark and Defense Minister Igor Rodionov participated in the blessing of a church. No high official put forward any sort of alternative to Pulikovsky's intention to settle the crisis in Grozny with the "use of bombers and ground support aircraft and a reactive system of firing volleys and artillery." The authorities were in a state of paralysis. And when there were only a few hours before the imminent tragedy, it was Lebed who came to Chechnya.


The military agreement that Lebed signed with Maskhadov, took the Kremlin unawares. No one expected that progress would be made in the negotiations, not least of all the official Chechen leadership. "This is a state coup organized from Moscow," said the head of the Chechen republic, Doku Zavgayev, in reference to the agreement.


This was the first time that the Chechen leader allowed himself to bite the hand of Moscow that fed him. But the exclusion of the puppet government from participation in the peace talks and Lebed's direct contact with those forces that have real power in Chechnya does not bode well for Zavgayev.


This is why Zavgayev has said that Lebed "does not know the Caucasus," "cannot imagine the nature of the Chechen crisis, especially the Chechen internal national organization," "has decided to build a reserve for terrorists," and so on. He has qualified Lebed's actions in Chechnya as a "state crime for which he will have to answer."


Does Yeltsin share such views? When put this question, Zavgayev said he held talks with the president in which Yeltsin "approved of my point of view." The president's appraisal of Lebed's peace-making mission has unexplainably wavered. He has been either "unsatisfied" with the general's activities or "supported" his efforts to achieve peace.


Yeltsin has still not firmly approved or disapproved of the agreement that was reached to end the war. The lack of a definite balance of forces in the under-the-carpet Kremlin struggle around Chechnya is the most likely reason for the president's indecisiveness. In this light, Zavgayev's angry tirade against Lebed makes much sense. Moreover, the president's press office has still not refuted the official Chechen leader's statement that Yeltsin shares his point of view.


The war in Chechnya will not be over until the secret, invisible struggle over Chechnya in the corridors of Russian power is settled. For the moment, the main goal of the struggle seems not the establishment of peace but the political elimination of Lebed.





Valery Vyzhutovich is a senior correspondent for Izvestia. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.