Weary Russians, Rebels Finally Deal

Victory at hand in Chechnya, Moscow may bend on republic's status - for now

IF, as now seems likely, Russian and Chechen officials agree on a peace treaty in talks that resumed yesterday, it will hardly differ from a deal they nearly reached six months and several thousand lives ago: a cease-fire, rebel disarmament, Russian withdrawal.

As Russian tanks rumbled toward the Chechen capital of Grozny in mid-December, both sides felt strong enough to stand on their principles, and the deal fell through.

Today, with Russian tanks guarding the ruins of Grozny, the Chechens cannot afford principles and Moscow can afford to be flexible.

Entering the talks in the Chechen capital of Grozny yesterday morning, senior Russian delegation member Arkady Volsky said that "elections and preparations for holding them" would top the agenda.

That seemed to confirm earlier suggestions that Moscow is prepared to set aside the thorniest issue - Chechnya's exact status - until eventual power-sharing talks with freshly elected Chechen authorities.

The Kremlin's temporary flexibility on this question would clear the way for practical talks without any formal renunciation by the Chechens of their 1991 declaration of independence. "In the end, Moscow is not going to compromise, but the Chechens cannot concede the status issue at the moment without losing all face," says one Western diplomat.

At the same time, the delegation representing Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev took an even bigger step last week, by agreeing to disarm separatist fighters without insisting on a full withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya. That had always been the Chechens' main demand.

Under a military agreement reached in the first round of talks, Russia can keep two brigades, up to 12,000 men, in the republic indefinitely. It is unclear whether all Chechen seperatist guerrilla groups will accept such a presence, and scattered violence is likely to continue.

Both sides' concessions reflect the blunt reality, however, that after six months of bloody fighting that has cost the lives of thousands of soldiers and civilians, Russian troops now control all of Chechnya that matters. General Dudayev's men have lost the war.

What Chechens can salvage from the peace, in terms of their autonomy, is now the main question. But the Russians want to discuss that with new authorities after elections, rather than get bogged down now in talks with Dudayev's officials, whom they do not technically recognize.

A campaign would likely be fought between outright separatists, and other candidates who will argue that there is no alternative but to accommodate Moscow.

Moscow - which has always offered limited self rule to Grozny as an alternative to full independence - would presumably be ready to do the sort of power-sharing deal it has done with Tatarstan, another predominantly Muslim republic in the Russian Federation.

The new Chechen authorities would not be in much of a position to reject that deal, since they are surrounded by 12,000 Russian soldiers.

"The Russians will be physically in control of the place, and they will effectively have their hands on the levers," the diplomat pointed out.

This week's talks are expected to focus on the elections - when they should be held, and what they would be for.

The Kremlin prefers - to judge by a statement from President Boris Yeltsin's office on Tuesday - that elections to a local parliament be held by the end of November.

Moscow is keen to avoid any presidential elections that would personalize the campaign, and raise the awkward question of whether Dudayev himself would be allowed to stand.

At the same time, Mr. Volsky said, the two sides would discuss the creation of an interim coalition government, comprising both Dudayev's representatives and leaders of the puppet government that Moscow installed last February.

The leader of the Chechen negotiating team, Usman Imayev, called last week for that government's dissolution.

Even if the most complex and critical questions such as Chechnya's autonomy are set aside, this week's talks are expected to be difficult.

Among the more ticklish questions, for example, is Dudayev's status. Should the Chechen side insist that Dudayev himself sign any peace treaty, the Russians would be in a spot, since Moscow issued an arrest warrant for the Chechen leader several months ago.

Another problem for the talks appeared to resolve itself on Tuesday, however. Russian spokesmen said they had been told by officials of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the 53-nation group that is brokering the peace talks, that Shamil Basayev had fled to Pakistan.

Mr. Basayev was the Chechen guerrilla who led the assault on the Russian town of Budennovsk two weeks ago, and who was granted safe conduct to Chechnya in return for his hostages.

The Russians had extracted a pledge from the Chechen negotiators that their men would help track him down, and his departure to Pakistan relieves the Chechens of an embarrassing duty they had shown no signs of wanting to fulfil.

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