Chechen leader calls Yeltsin's bluff


By Renfrey Clarke

MOSCOW — In a surprise development on April 8, Dzhokhar Dudayev, the central leader of the Chechen resistance forces, broke with the rebels' past position and called for direct negotiations with Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

Dudayev's initiative came in response to a demagogic "peace plan" announced by Yeltsin at the end of March. In proclaiming this scheme, Yeltsin indicated he was prepared to take part in talks via intermediaries.

By demanding that the talks go ahead on a face-to-face basis, Dudayev has called Yeltsin's bluff. Two months before the Russian presidential elections on June 16, Yeltsin will either be forced to agree to Dudayev's demand — thus implicitly recognising the legitimacy of the Chechen independence struggle — or will be seen by the war-weary Russian population as not seriously interested in peace.

Russians first heard the details of Yeltsin's plan on March 31, when the president went on national television to announce that "all operations by troops on the territory of Chechnya" would promptly cease. A step-by-step withdrawal of federal forces from "the peaceable areas of Chechnya" would follow.

Russian military operations, however, continued with scarcely diminished ferocity. Spokespeople for the regime explained that despite the cease-fire, the military had been instructed to continue "special selective operations", and to persist in eradicating "banditry". Those exceptions are broad enough to allow almost anything.

Yeltsin's fears for his job if the fighting continues are well based. In a survey at the end of March, 62% of respondents chose ending the war as the first demand they would place on any candidate for whom they might vote.

Until March 31, Yeltsin had refused any form of dialogue with the leadership of the Chechen resistance, and only a few weeks earlier had stated that Dudayev should be shot "like a rabid dog". The factors that changed his mind presumably included another opinion survey in which 57% of respondents favoured direct talks between the Russian president and Dudayev.

Demands not met

But making a show of peace-seeking is not the same thing as taking the steps reasonably required if the war is to end.

The key demands the Chechens raise are for the complete withdrawal of federal troops, and for the granting of independence. Yeltsin has given no serious reason to believe that he intends to meet the first of these demands. His refusal to meet the second was expressed bluntly during his March 31 television appearance: "[Dudayev's] main condition ... with which we cannot agree, is that Chechnya should be independent. That's already a violation of Russia's integrity."

Whether Russia might be violating Chechnya's integrity is a question Yeltsin avoided. Chechnya was forcibly incorporated into the Russian empire in the 19th century, in the course of a decades-long war.

When the current war began in December 1994, a majority of Chechens may have favoured some form of membership of the Russian federation. But after 16 months of slaughter and pillage by Russian troops, there is not the slightest reason to think that most Chechens do not want to be rid of Russian overlordship once and for all.

The fact that the Chechen fighters are able to continue their struggle, against a heavy Russian superiority in troops and weaponry, is itself proof that their fight is broadly popular.

Yeltsin's refusal to make the concessions needed for peace also extends to the political set-up inside the republic. On March 31 the Russian president promised "free and democratic elections to the parliament" of Chechnya. But it is a well-established principle in Russia that parliaments have almost no power compared to presidents. Who is to be president of Chechnya? On this vital issue, Yeltsin made no concessions at all.

After several months of low-level peace talks last autumn, the Russian side shut down the process by insisting that elections for the post of president of Chechnya should be held in December on terms which Moscow dictated. The "elections" that followed were a travesty.

"In fact, there were no such elections", Anatoly Shabad, one of the leaders of the liberal bloc Russia's Democratic Choice, wrote in the English-language Moscow Times on April 2. "The former Communist leader of the Chechen autonomous republic, [Doku] Zavgayev, was simply proclaimed the winner. This gave rise to a new war."

If meaningful peace talks are to go ahead, and real parliamentary elections are to be held in Chechnya, Yeltsin will have to indicate that he is prepared to yield on the question of new presidential elections.

Battles continue

Since February, the Russian armed forces have conducted an offensive every bit as violent as the spring offensive last year. Early in March, the Chechen fighters struck back, seizing large areas of the capital, Grozny, and holding them for as long as four days.

Moscow's forces then launched a sustained bombardment of the town of Samashki, 30 kilometres west of Grozny. In six days of intense shelling, almost all the houses in the town were destroyed. Local elders told journalists that more than 600 civilians were killed.

The demolition of Samashki was clearly meant to show other communities what they could expect if they gave aid to resistance fighters. Local leaders in close to half of Chechnya's towns and villages have now been forced to sign agreements with the Russian military under which they promise to keep pro-Dudayev fighters out of their territory.

For a growing list of communities, the protection supposedly provided by these agreements has proven worthless. The worst violation of a local peace pact occurred in the first week of April, when Russian aircraft twice bombed the village of Shazhali. Villagers said that more than 100 houses were destroyed. Only hours before the first raid, local elders had signed a truce with the Russian military.

Army commanders reportedly say they will continue "special operations", perhaps up to the middle of May. "The plan now seems to be to begin the withdrawal in several weeks' time", the Moscow Times wrote on April 5, "thus giving the army more time to weaken and drive back the rebels, and to have pictures of returning tanks on television in the days leading up to elections".

But there is no sign that the Russian army, ill funded, demoralised and often hungry, will inflict major strategic defeats on the Chechens in the next few weeks. With good reasons for wanting Yeltsin out of office, the fighters are likely to step up their attacks as the elections approach.