Russia's Chechnya Now a Battlefield For Peace Tactics

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Russia's new security chief, Alexander Lebed, has registered two new benchmarks in his attempts at lone-bull diplomacy in Chechnya.

On Saturday, Chechen separatist fighters and Russian soldiers turned shoulder to shoulder in joint patrols for the first time to monitor the still-fragile and poorly observed cease-fire.

The Russian side also showed a discipline in its chain of command that has often been missing during the long Chechen crisis. This weekend, Russian troops were under orders not to fire, even in response to Chechen attack - orders that followed the direction of Mr. Lebed.

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The events of last week raised questions about the Russian chain of command. Lebed, on being given sole responsibility for resolving the crisis, found himself undercut by military commanders in the field and by President Boris Yeltsin.

By the weekend, Lebed - at least for the moment - had established the chain of command and his place in it. After being rebuffed by Mr. Yeltsin earlier in the week, Lebed got a public word of support from the president on Friday. And in a television interview aired last night in Moscow, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin said Lebed was negotiating political proposals for the future of Chechnya that had been defined by Yeltsin himself.

US Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, a longtime observer of Russian politics who is visiting Moscow, said: "This is not a regime that's falling apart. This is a stable country with a very difficult problem."

The immediate result of Lebed's reasserted authority was a new cease-fire beginning Friday at noon. The relative discipline on the Russian side made violations by the Chechens more apparent. Lebed planned to begin talks with the rebel leadership Sunday on the political status of Chechnya within Russia, but the talks were postponed after Chechens seized weapons from an Interior Ministry unit Saturday.

Chechen leaders said the weapons had been seized by a "loose" group of militants and apologized.

Whether or not this cease-fire holds, Lebed has managed to assert a civilian authority over military commanders in the field that Yeltsin has not demonstrated. When Yeltsin announced a unilateral cease-fire in March as part of a campaign strategy to present himself to voters as a peacemaker, Russian television continued to show Russian planes bombing Chechen villages.

Last Monday, Lebed's peacemaking efforts faced a similar military derailment. The acting military commander in Chechnya, Konstantin Pulikovsky, left a negotiating session with Chechen rebel chief of staff Aslan Maskhadov and gave Grozny residents a two-day ultimatum to leave town before he unleashed an all-out ground and air assault against rebel forces.

Two days later, Defense Minister Igor Rodionov asserted that General Pulikovsky was acting on his own, without higher authority or clearance. But Pulikovsky was backed up by the regular commander in Chechnya, Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, when he returned from vacation Wednesday and confirmed the ultimatum.

At least part of the basis for Pulikovsky's action, other than his own distrust of the rebels (he has lost a son in the war), was a confusing order from Yeltsin's office Monday. The order both asked for the conflict to be resolved through political means and for the rule of law to be reestablished in Grozny as it was before the rebels seized the city Aug. 6. So Pulikovsky, who was negotiating over setting up joint cease-fire monitoring patrols, added the demand that the rebels withdraw from Grozny. It was an obvious deal-breaker.

Noting that Yeltsin's order had undercut his diplomacy, Lebed threw back a political grenade of his own. He questioned whether Yeltsin had issued the orders that came out over his facsimiled signature, sharpening doubts about whether the ailing Yeltsin was actively steering the ship of state.

In the next few days, Yeltsin appeared in a television interview where he bemoaned Lebed's lack of results, even though Yeltsin had assigned Chechnya to Lebed without warning less than two weeks earlier. Yeltsin later softened his remarks with a statement of support on Friday.

Even so it appeared that Yeltsin was playing the same game with Lebed that he has in the past with Mr. Chernomyrdin - jerking him back when he gets too assertive and prominent.

On Sunday, the challenge had become for the Chechens to show the same level of discipline that the Russians had finally mustered. Rebel chief of staff Maskhadov was reportedly trying to bring about the return of the weapons taken from the Russian patrol. Talks were stalled on that point.

According to the Russian wire service Interfax, Lebed is carrying a proposal that Chechnya receive a high level of state sovereignty that cannot be changed from Moscow without the consent of Chechen leadership. The sharpest disputes are expected to be over the status of the Chechen armed forces.

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