Chechnya After Lebed: a Few Doubts But Rebels, Russians Keep the Peace

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The ouster of Alexander Lebed from the Yeltsin administration has stripped the fragile peace in Chechnya of its main champion and lone broker in the Kremlin, creating an edgy uncertainty about Moscow's intentions among the separatist Chechen leaders.

Mr. Lebed's successor, appointed Saturday, is a former Speaker of the Russian Duma, or lower house of parliament, who is known as a mild-mannered centrist. As the new national security chief and envoy to Chechnya, Ivan Rybkin says he is deeply committed to the peace accords established by Lebed.

Many top rebel politicians and field commanders also want the agreements and mechanisms for creating a new Chechen government to remain in force, according to Zenon Kuchciak, a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission in the Chechen capital of Grozny.

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"Except for nervousness about the political situation in Moscow, the situation is the same" in Chechnya as when Lebed was in office, said Mr. Kuchciak on Friday after meeting with Chechen officials.

The next major steps toward peace were already under way as Lebed was fired and Mr. Rybkin hired during the past four days. The separatists were deciding on the members of a coalition government. It will include four or five former Cabinet members of the Moscow-supported Chechen administration, regarded as the opposition by the rebels. The turmoil in Moscow just delayed the announcement.

Separatist Chechen President Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev "is reassessing the situation," said Kuchciak.

Chechnya elections?

One separatist official told Itar-Tass news service Friday that the rebels would call for elections in Chechnya to be held Jan. 27. He said that the separatists would invite members of the Moscow-backed Chechen government to sit on the election commission and would ask international observers to monitor the voting.

Kuchciak, however, said that not all the separatist leaders agree on the Jan. 27 date. Some think it is too early, some too late. He believes that the discussion of an election date is just beginning.

Rebel chief of staff Aslan Maskhadov, who negotiated with Lebed from the Chechen side, is serving as prime minister in the coalition government.

Lebed said immediately after his firing Thursday evening that he would continue to concern himself with furthering the peace in Chechnya. But even if he remains active, he will no longer represent the Kremlin.

Lebed struck a peace agreement between Russian federal forces and Chechen rebels in August, within days of becoming presidential envoy to Chechnya. The accord ended weeks of intensive fighting in Grozny after the rebels recaptured control of the city. Within days, rebel gunmen became protectors of Russian troops against maverick Chechen attacks, and Russian forces began withdrawing. The Russian command in Chechnya says 70 percent of army units and 40 percent of Interior troops have withdrawn.

Even with Lebed gone from the Kremlin, "no one would dare to return to a military scenario," says Valery Tishkov, director of the Institute of Ethnology at the Russian Academy of Sciences and an adviser to the government on Chechnya. "So what Lebed has done is irreversible."

While many Russian politicians and officials have complained that Lebed gave too much away in his deals with the rebels, some even accusing him of treason, Mr. Tishkov notes that President Yeltsin and the Federation Council (the upper chamber of Russia's parliament) approved all the agreements.

But most of the original backers of hard-line military approaches to Chechnya have been purged from government since last spring. And the separatists would be a more stubborn target than ever now. They control most of Chechnya militarily and have proved that they can retake their cities from the Russians at will, who can only win them back through massive destruction and loss of civilian life.

Lebed's key contribution

Lebed brought several key assets to the problem of Chechnya that would be difficult to replace. First, he was the highest profile public figure in Russian government and a legendary military man, which gave him credibility in Chechnya. Second, he gave the Chechen problem his full attention. Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, the leading figure in dealing with Chechnya before Lebed, was not able to do so because of many responsibilities.

Third, Lebed saw the Chechen problem differently than most Russian officials. While Kremlin officials have typically called the rebels "bandits," Lebed accorded the rebels the respect of valiant adversaries fighting for a cause they deeply believe in.

On Saturday, Lebed was scornful of his successor. "The Security Council will turn into a peaceful bureaucratic office, of which no one will hear and no one will know."

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