Yeltsin Deal for Chechens May Buy Time for Peace

IN the days since President Yeltsin unveiled his plan for peace in Chechnya, where Russia has been ensnared in a bitter and hugely unpopular war with separatists for more than a year, the fighting has continued.

Although Mr. Yeltsin decreed that military operations would cease at midnight Sunday, provocations continue to be reported from both sides. Chechen guerrillas have attacked Russian convoys and checkpoints. Russian troops have continued shelling with mortars, using attack helicopters, and - according to refugees pouring out of mountain hamlets - raining shrapnel from Grad missiles.

That does not mean that the Yeltsin plan has failed already, according to many analysts here. Both Yeltsin and Chechen leader Gen. Dzhokar Dudayev have one interest in common just now: They both need time.

Yeltsin has acknowledged that he cannot be reelected in 3-1/2 months if the Chechen war is still raging. General Dudayev's forces have been battered hard by the Russians for weeks, and many speculate that they need a respite to regroup and resupply.

In his first response to the plan, Dudayev told an Azerbaijani news service Tuesday night that he was willing to negotiate with Yeltsin through mediators, although he doubts Yeltsin's goodwill and insists that Russian troops are withdrawn first. He has nevertheless left the door open for Russia to take the next step - probably naming a prominent mediator. Possible choices are Presidents Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakstan or Mintimer Shaimiyev of Tatarstan, a semiautonomous Russian republic.

But none of the obstacles that have blocked peace here before have budged. "The plan itself is meaningless," says a Western diplomat, "a rehash of everything that's been tried before." What the plan does, the diplomat says, "is turn back the clock to just after the Budennovsk hostage crisis."

Last June, after Chechen commandos seized a hospital in that southern Russian city and took scores of hostages, Russians opened negotiations that led to a cease-fire agreement.

The negotiations were with representatives of Dudayev, similar to the negotiations Yeltsin is proposing now. The agreement called for Chechens to turn over their weapons as Russians gradually withdrew troops. Yeltsin's current plan offers the staged withdrawal of troops as regions are pacified.

The Yeltsin plan returns the situation to that status of last summer, says Alexander Iskandarian, director of the Moscow Center for Caucasian Studies. Negotiations were blocked when they came to the point of granting real concessions to the Chechens - either by withdrawing Russian troops or allowing independence, he says.

Arkady Popov, a policy analyst in the Kremlin who helped craft Yeltsin's plan, concurs that attitudes have changed on both sides since last summer. The Kremlin was not ready to negotiate political questions seriously then, he says. Now the pressure of the presidential vote, the unpopularity of the war, the possibility of Chechen terrorism, and fatigue of the Russian Army have prepared Moscow to negotiate seriously.

Dudayev too, Mr. Popov says, may be ready now to accept a measure of association with Russia, perhaps modeled on Puerto Rico's territorial status within the United States, so long as Yeltsin allows him the face-saving measure of greater independence than any other republic in Russia.

The most significant aspect of Yeltsin's acknowledgment of Dudayev is that it opens the possibility of a political role for Dudayev in postwar Chechnya. Only weeks ago, Yeltsin called Dudayev a criminal and terrorist who should be shot.

Another difference between the current gambit and last summer's talks is that Russia came to the table then in a position of weakness, in effect at the point of the Chechen hostage-taker's gun, Popov says. That made political concessions too potentially humiliating to consider.

This time, the Russians have pounded Chechnya mercilessly for weeks. The Russians wanted to offer the plan from a position of strength, Popov says, which makes it easier for them to be generous in a political deal.

A few months of relative quiet - during the election campaign - is what Yeltsin needs most. In polls, Russians blame the war on him three times as often as they blame it on Dudayev.

But the election schedule is no secret to Dudayev, and Mr. Iskandarian says he could regroup and then unleash attacks on Grozny right before the presidential vote.

Others guess that Dudayev won't wait that long. "Dudayev just needs some time ... but I wouldn't give him 2-1/2 months [until the presidential election]. Maybe six weeks," says the Western diplomat.

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