Crisis in the Caucasus

RUSSIAN President Boris Yeltsin has painted himself into a corner over the breakaway republic of Chechnya. How, or if, he can get himself out remains to be seen.

For several days, Russian aircraft and rockets have blasted Chechen positions, and troops and tanks have surrounded Grozny, the capital of the rebellious Caucasus Mountain region. ``Only capitulation of [Chechen separatist leader Dzhokhar] Dudayev's forces would stop bloodshed,'' Russian Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Yegorov said recently.

That may be true, but Chechen capitulation is highly unlikely. Mr. Dudayev has withdrawn his delegates from peace talks with Russia, vowing to fight to the end. This is in keeping with the reputation of the Chechens, a proud, freedom-loving Islamic people with a tolerance for battle. We hope that the suspension of peace talks will be temporary.

The United States' position on the crisis is the only viable one: It recognizes that the conflict with Chechnya is an internal matter and that Yeltsin is within his rights to put down an uprising there. At the same time, the US is urging Moscow to do what it can to avoid bloodshed and bring about a peaceful resolution. Chechnya declared its independence three years ago, but neither the Russian Federation nor any other country in the world recognizes that independence. Chechnya's attempted secession is illegal from the standpoint of the Russian Constitution.

The problem for the US - and more important, for Yeltsin - is that the use of force is widely unpopular and has already damaged the president's credibility and political support. In the lower house of parliament, an unusual alliance has been formed between reformers and Communists opposed to military action against Chechnya.

Yeltsin strongly believes that if the situation in the republic is not decisively handled, Chechnya's resistance could prompt others to resist, leading to an unraveling of the Russian Federation. But a Russian Army invasion of Grozny could lead to guerrilla warfare in Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus, as well as terrorist attacks in major Russian cities, where many Chechens live.

Yeltsin's dilemma is one of peace or conquest. Russia has the right to conquer what's within its own borders, but it is obviously in the Russian president's best interest to try to negotiate a settlement. From watching how Yeltsin handles the crisis in Chechnya, we may learn a lot about the way democracy is working in Russia.

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