Russia's Point Man On Chechnya Puts Peace Back on Table

Within 48 hours of first taking on the sharpest and most urgent crisis facing the Russian government, national security chief and retired Gen. Alexander Lebed had already begun personal negotiations with rebel leaders in Chechnya and brought a forthrightness and clarity to the Chechen question unheard of in a senior Russian official.

On Saturday, Mr. Lebed - without any warning or consultation - found out from his secretary that President Boris Yeltsin had just named him the official representative for Chechnya.

On Sunday, he made an unannounced trip to Chechnya, met with the rebel chief of staff Aslan Maskhadov, chief rebel spokesman Movladi Udugov, and the brother of prominent field commander Shamil Basayev.

On Monday, the most serious fighting in a year fighting raged on in Grozny. But Mr. Lebed held a press conference that named names, laid down gauntlets, and described a Russian Army so disorganized, mismanaged, and impoverished that for the first time an official statement matched what journalists have been seeing in Chechnya.

Lebed said that he and Maskhadov agreed that Chechen sovereignty, the issue that started the war, was no longer the sticking point. "Everyone knows that Russia can manage without Chechnya, but Chechnya can't manage without Russia," he says he told Maskhadov. And Maskhadov conveyed his personal opinion that the Chechens would accept a settlement similar to a 1993 agreement that granted the republic of Tatarstan near-total national independence within Russia.

"So the issue," said Lebed, "is how to stop the murder." He also agreed with Maskhadov that probably 90 percent of the forces on each side could be controlled in a cease-fire, the rest being unmanageable forces such as the inconsolable relatives of the war's victims.

Once the battling forces have been disengaged, the next step is a congress of Chechen leaders from various villages, factions, and public groups, says Gen. Konstantin Pulikovsky, acting commander of Russian forces in Chechnya, who met with Maskhadov later.

Lebed said he expected President Yeltsin to sign a decree today giving Lebed the power to coordinate the work of all federal agencies in Chechnya, command the armed forces there, and hire and fire relevant federal officials up to the deputy-minister level - because, Lebed explained, "there are a lot of lazy bums."

Lebed recommended firing the press secretaries of the major security ministries for hiding from their telephones to avoid responsibility. He said his own deputy, who is supposedly based in Grozny, is reportedly in Cyprus on vacation during the current crisis.

He also recommended the firing of the head of military logistics for the Russian armed forces. Russia should not be represented by the "starvelings who stand in block posts, who are hungry and dirty and in who-knows-what-kind of boots." Yet anyone who wants to buy a machine gun in Chechnya can find one, he notes. Meanwhile, the rebels are being funded partly out of the Russian budget, said Lebed, "through the silent consent of the [Moscow-supported] Chechen government, and sometimes with their direct involvement."

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