WHEN he ordered tanks to fire on the Russian parliament building last year, President Boris Yeltsin defeated the challenge to his authority led by Ruslan Khasbulatov, then speaker of the parliament.
When he threatened to send in Russian forces to restore order in the breakaway republic of Chechnya last week, Mr. Yeltsin implicity signaled his support for Mr. Khasbulatov's political rehabilitation. As Russian troops massed on the Chechen border, Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev and Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev agreed Tuesday to resolve the crisis peacefully. But if the truce does not last - and chances are good that it won't - Russia's military could find itself stuck in a quagmire.
Khasbulatov is one of the leading opponents of Mr. Dudayev, a former Soviet Air Force general and leader of the predominantly Muslim republic of 1.3 million. Dudayev has been a thorn in Yeltsin's side since Chechnya declared its independence from Russia in 1991. Moscow maintains that it is still a part of the Russsian Federation. Chechnya's independence also is not recognized outside of Russia.
Yeltsin and his advisers are concerned that Dudayev's challenge to Moscow could set a dangerous precedent for other republics. In particular, the leaders of neighboring North Ossetia, Ingushetia, and Dagestan could be encouraged to followed Dudayev's lead.
The urge to oust Dudayev is also driven by the belief that the Chechen leader is largely responsible for an increase in crime in Russia. In Moscow and other cities, Chechens have been singled out by law-enforcement authorities for their role in criminal and terrorist activity. A number of recent airplane highjackings have either involved ethnic Chechens or ended up on Chechen territory.
For the past few months, internal opposition to Dudayev has escalated into an armed uprising. The Yeltsin government has played a key role in providing funding and logistical support to Dudayev's opponents. Khasbulatov has been one of the major beneficiaries of this help. After being jailed for leading the parliamentary opposition last fall, Khasbulatov and former Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoi were released under an amnesty passed by the Russian parliament in February. Unlike Mr. Rutskoi, Khasbulatov has maintained a low profile since his release - at least until this summer, when he returned to Chechnya.
Replacing Dudayev would mark the beginning of the Khasbulatov's political revival, although he is a long way from being speaker of the nation's parliament. But defeating the Chechen leader has not been easy, and without Moscow's support, it would be impossible. Moreover, Khasbulatov is not the only opposition figure benefiting from Russian support. Ruslan Labazanov, a young warlord, has led a military campaign to oust Dudayev; Umar Avtukhanov is chairman of the the Provisional Council, the leading opposition body. A power struggle is not unlikely among the three if Dudayev is overthrown, and this may require further intervention by Moscow.
Russia has refrained from getting directly involved militarily, but last week's developments - including the capture of Russian soldiers by Dudayev loyalists - heighten the threat of an invasion of Grozny, the Chechen capital. Yeltsin has vowed to use ``all means at the disposal of the [Russian] state'' to end the violence in Chechnya. Translated, that means removing Dudayev.
But use of Russian troops is unlikely to halt the fighting. Instead, it could stir up anti-Russian feelings in Chechnya and in the whole Caucasus. Relations between Moscow and the Ingush Republic, for example, are already tense over problems repatriating Ingush refugees. Terrorist activity against Russian targets and even uprisings in Chechnya's neighboring states can't be ruled out if Russian tanks and troops move on Grozny.
Furthermore, keeping Dudayev - or his supporters if the Chechen leader is arrested or killed - from making trouble for a new regime will require a continued presence of Russian troops in Chechnya. Memories of Afghanistan will make such a measure highly unpopular.
Because no country recognizes Chechnya's independence, reaction from the international community will be minimal. Russian intervention in Chechnya will be viewed as an internal matter. Yet through quiet diplomatic channels, the West should caution Yeltsin against moving recklessly on the Dudayev regime.
Concern about Russia's intentions toward Chechnya will strengthen critics of United States aid to Moscow. At the same time, Chechnya and the Caucasus region is beset by chaos - in part the result of Russian meddling. Except for a small peacekeeping force in Nagorno-Karabakh, the West won't send forces to restore order. That responsibility has fallen to Moscow. The agreement to avert the use of force in nearby Chechnya does not solve Moscow's problem with Dudayev. Yeltsin is left to decide whether he prefers Khasbulatov to Dudayev. He must also worry that Chechnya could become his Afghanistan. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.