RUSSIAN and Chechen forces will stopping fighting the night of Jan. 18, an envoy from Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev announced Jan. 17 after meeting with Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.
Chechen Attorney General Usman Imayev negotiated with the prime minister after a conciliatory speech by Mr. Chernomyrdin, Jan. 16 on Russian TV, in which he called for immediate talks ``with all interested parties and forces'' on a cease-fire.
The moderate, reasoned tone of his address struck a sympathetic chord with Russian critics, and for the first time the Kremlin offered a cease-fire without demanding that Chechen separatist fighters disarm first.
``There is no doubt that this is a genuine attempt to find an acceptable political solution,'' said Prof. Sergei Blagovolin, head of the Moscow branch of Yegor Gaidar's Russia's Choice Party, which has condemned Moscow's military intervention in the breakaway republic.
``I am hopeful for the first time since the war began,'' he added.
Chernomyrdin's speech, offering talks with General Dudayev on concrete proposals to end the fighting, marked ``quite a significant change'' in Moscow's stance and ``a degree of humiliation for the war camp'' in the Kremlin, which had pressed for complete victory over the Chechen rebels, one Western diplomat said.
`Climb down' for Dudayev
At the same time, the way in which Chernomyrdin spelled out Chechnya's political future within the Russian Federation implied a ``massive climb down'' for Dudayev and his ambitions of independence, the diplomat added.
But the announcement of the cease-fire suggested the Chechen leader was ready for such concessions. The delegation, including noted moderate Economy Minister Taimaz Abubakarov, arrived in Moscow Jan. 15, accompanied by Ruslan Aushev, President of the Republic of Ingushetia, which neighbors Chechnya.
It was not clear, however, whether Chechen fighters in Grozny will adhere to the truce, since they have pledged to defend the Presidential Palace to the death.
Mr. Aushev welcomed Chernomyrdin's meeting the Chechen delegation, since the prime minister - recently put in charge of Chechnya policy by President Boris Yeltsin - ``has so far been talking only to people who are not in control of the situation,'' such as Chechen business and religious figures.
The envoys' meeting with Chernomyrdin could herald an encounter between Chechen leader Dudayev and Chernomyrdin, and with central Grozny almost flattened by relentless Russian artillery and rocket assaults, ``it is easy to see why Dudayev jumped at that element of concession,'' the Western diplomat said.
But Russian concessions are heavily front loaded, to judge by Chernomyrdin's speech, and Moscow's goals are unchanged.
The Russian premier held out the prospect of a provisional Chechen administration taking charge of initial reconstruction efforts until elections could be held for a new government, with which Moscow would negotiate Chechnya's status within the Russian Federation.
That would represent ``a total negation of everything the Dudayev regime has existed for,'' the diplomat pointed out.
While Chechen leaders have been forced to the negotiating table by their military fate, Moscow's readiness for talks before full military victory is secured appears prompted by other considerations.
Growing international concern at the loss of life in Chechnya has made itself felt, for example: US Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who was meeting Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev in Geneva Jan. 17, has publicly regretted the way Moscow has handled the Chechnya crisis.
At the same time, Professor Blagovolin pointed out, ``there is the economic side of the coin - we have to deal first of all with our economic problems.''
Chernomyrdin warned in his speech that Chechen reconstruction would cost at least 5 trillion rubles ($1.25 billion).