By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — Throughout much of the second week of July, the streets of the Chechen capital, Grozny, were under the control of demonstrators chanting anti-Russian slogans and holding up portraits of separatist leaders. Russian soldiers were confined to a few strong points, and police were disobeying orders from the city's Russian-installed mayor to disperse the protesters.
The focus of the demonstrations was the single-storey building that houses the local office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Inside, the third round of discussions between Russian and Chechen negotiators on ending the seven-month war was under way.
The Russian representatives had been given considerable authority by Moscow to take initiatives and grant concessions. Their general brief was to establish a reputation for the federal Russian government as a force committed to peace. But there were to be no concessions on the Chechens' demand for independence. And independence, declared by Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev in 1991, was what the war was all about.
The anxiety of the Moscow authorities to appear as peacemakers is understandable. Izvestia on July 8 published the results of a poll indicating that in the Russian parliamentary elections due for December, 37% of respondents intended to vote for candidates who opposed military action in Chechnya. Seven per cent meant to vote for candidates who favoured the war, while 19% regarded the issue with indifference. A widely held view was confirmed: if pro-regime candidates wanted to win, they would have to stake a credible claim to being on the side of peace.
President Boris Yeltsin and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin had been forced to confront the unpopularity of the war in mid-June during the hostage crisis in the south Russian town of Budyonnovsk. Efforts by Yeltsin and others to use the crisis to whip up support for the war proved unsuccessful. After an attempt to storm the hospital buildings where the hostages were being held added dozens to the number of dead, Chernomyrdin agreed to concessions that included a cease-fire and the prompt opening of peace talks.
These talks began almost immediately in the war-devastated Chechen capital. During this first round, agreement was reached in principle on the exchange of prisoners, the withdrawal of most Russian armed forces and the gradual disarmament of Chechen fighters.
Discussion then moved on to a more demanding political phase. On July 1 the two sides issued a joint communique stating that elections for all levels of power in Chechnya would be held not later than November 5, with international observers.
Also addressed during this period was the question of which authorities would oversee these elections. Russian negotiators proposed a "zero option" according to which the Russian-installed Provisional Government of National Revival would resign, while Dudayev would either resign or leave Chechnya. An interim coalition government would then be formed. In the first days of July, Dudayev rejected this option, stating that he would resign only if Chechnya were granted its independence.
The messages issuing from Moscow then became bluntly uncompromising. On July 4 Yeltsin signed a decree stating that troops of the Russian 58th Army would be based in Chechnya permanently to "defend the state and territorial integrity of the Russian Federation".
In a statement the next day, Chernomyrdin insisted that the status of Chechnya could be decided "only on the basis of the Russian constitution". Russia's constitution, drawn up on instructions from Yeltsin late in 1993, makes no provision for republics such as Chechnya to secede.
On July 6, after the Russian negotiators had consulted with Chernomyrdin in Moscow, the third round of peace talks began. The Russians made clear that they wanted the vital question of Chechnya's future status to be discussed only after the Chechen elections in November.
If the Moscow authorities have their way, developments will now unfold as follows. In November, in the heat of the election campaign for the Russian parliament, the Chechen population will go to the polls. Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin will present themselves to Russian voters as the architects of a peaceful, democratic solution to the problems of the Caucasus republic. Only subsequently will the taxing question of Chechen independence come up for discussion. The Russian side will keep the negotiations out of the news until after the Russian elections on December 12, and from this point, the Moscow authorities will be under much less pressure to make concessions.
If events fail to follow this scheme, it may well be because the Russian side has slipped into the mode of ruthless inflexibility somewhat early. The message has already gone out from Moscow that Dudayev will not be tolerated as a presidential candidate. A criminal prosecution brought by the Russian authorities against the Chechen president is still being pursued.
On other counts as well, the prospects for "free and fair" elections in Chechnya are grim. Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin clearly intend that the polls will be organised and conducted by a "Chechen" government that is securely in Moscow's pocket. Reports indicate that if the "zero option" had gone ahead, the federal authorities intended to offer Dudayev's followers just 10% of the posts in an interim coalition cabinet.
Still more outrageous are the provisions under which the Russian authorities want the Chechen elections to be contested. According to the Moscow daily Segodnya, the Russian negotiators are pushing for quotas of seats in the parliament and other organs of power to be allotted beforehand to supporters of the current Moscow-appointed administration and to supporters of Dudayev.
The fact that the Russian authorities have made such a demand shows that they tacitly accept what every serious observer of Chechen affairs knows to be true: that free elections would result in overwhelming majorities for candidates hostile to Moscow.
In the circumstances, the very fact that the Chechen negotiators have continued to show up for the talks is a tribute to their desire for peace. It cannot be said that the Chechen population is united behind Dudayev and the remnants of his government. Nevertheless, it is clear that the main groupings within Chechen society want a negotiated end to the fighting, and are prepared to make important concessions in order to achieve it.
A continuation of the Russian government's current strategies must, however, sooner or later exhaust the Chechens' patience. This is not a prospect the Moscow authorities should take lightly.
The "victories" the Russian army has scored so far have only been in the massed battles and positional warfare that Moscow's forces were almost guaranteed of winning. The Chechen fighters have never been "cleared" from the lowland districts or from the ruins of the capital. During the weeks of patchily observed cease-fire, the resistance forces have re-established their support structures and proven that they can mount guerilla operations throughout their national territory.
Most crucially, the Chechen fighters are backed by a genuine popular movement whose strength has been shown by the persistent demonstrations outside the talks in Grozny.