Boris Yeltsin's 'Peace'-for-Votes Chechnya Strategy

TELEVISION had turned it into a bloody living-room war that eroded support for it. The president, running for reelection, announced that he had a secret plan to end it. The plan involved an offensive to subdue resistance, then a cease-fire, phasing out of expeditionary forces, and negotiations.

There ends the parallel between America's war in Vietnam, 7,000 miles away, and Boris Yeltsin's war in Chechnya, an indigestible enclave inside Russia.

The strategy for a carefully timed peace initiative was outlined by Yeltsin in a 40-minute phone conversation with President Clinton on Jan. 26, a transcript of which was leaked to an opposition Russian newspaper.

First Mr. Yeltsin said he planned a military offensive to "finish off the armed detachments." Then, in April, he would hold a round-table conference involving the "legitimate authorities," that is, the Russian-installed puppet government, and the "opposition," that is, the rebels led by Gen. Dzhokhar Dudayev. Yeltsin talked of including the presidents of the nearby Caucasus republics of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

Mr. Clinton's reaction, as translated back from the Russian translation, was, "Indeed, you must do everything necessary to overcome this painful situation, especially with the upcoming elections."

So, after 30,000 civilian deaths in 15 months of concentrated attack, Yeltsin launched his March offensive. Villages were sealed off and pummeled with artillery. And still the resistance was not crushed.

Nevertheless, Yeltsin last Sunday announced the unilateral cease-fire, which he had trouble getting his commanders to respect, and offered negotiations to provide Chechnya with more autonomy than any other region in the Russian federation. "Very, very close to independence," he said.

There is no sign that the Chechens, having fought so long and so hard, will settle now for anything less than complete independence. Yeltsin cannot concede that without inviting uprisings by other disaffected minorities and the rage of Russian nationalists.

But, as he suggested to Clinton in January, Yeltsin's peace move 11 weeks before the June 16 election is mainly a political ploy aimed at showing that something is being done to resolve the situation. Yeltsin once said that there was no point in his running if he had not settled the Chechen conflict. He still hasn't, but he wants voters to know he's working on it.

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