Chechen Desperation

THE Chechen fighters who seized hostages in the Russian town of Budennovsk last week probably did little to help their separatist cause, which is wilting away militarily. And they may have shifted the moral balance toward their Russian adversaries, since the use of civilians as shields and bargaining chips is always reprehensible.

As a tactic, hostage-taking has been on the rise recently - from the UN hostages in Bosnia to the Chechens' seizure of the hospital in Budennovsk to the airline hijacking by an adherent of the Japanese Aum cult. These are desperate acts that typically deepen animosities.

Nobody could be more desperate than Chechnya's rebels, who have drawn out their battle for independence longer than anyone in the Kremlin thought possible, but now seem to be in a tunnel with no light at the end. The foray into Russia, however, did crack the Russian determination to simply smash the rebellion. Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, acting while President Boris Yeltsin was away at the economic summit in Canada, agreed to start up peace talks in the Chechen capital, Grozny.

Those talks are a glimmer of hope. From the start last December, the better route would have been discussion of Chechen demands for autonomy rather than stamping out the separatist fire with force, as Mr. Yeltsin chose. The question now is whether the two sides can talk things out, passions having risen so high. The Russian position is: no substantive talks until Chechnya's leader turns over those responsible for Budennovsk.

That's not likely to go anywhere. The Chechens are perhaps the most fiercely independent of the ethnic groups that still reside within the Russian Federation. Moscow may fear that any step toward accommodating their desires will fuel similar inclinations elsewhere. Just as likely, an arrangement that gives the Chechens an increased measure of self-government could mark a break with centuries of oppressive Russian rule and breed greater harmony in the federation.

That ideal won't easily find expression in an atmosphere of hateful ethnic type-casting and frantic political neck-saving in Moscow. But it should. The hostage episode may have been a desperate last call to turn this tragedy around.

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