Talk, Don't Shoot

THE peace talks in Chechnya faltered this week, but they're not likely to collapse. Both sides have ample reason to keep them alive. The Russians certainly don't want all-out combat again, with casualties adding to the public's disgust with the war back home and Chechen rebels resorting to terrorist tactics and threats.

And the Chechens? They have a lot to gain simply by sitting at the same table with the Russians, their flag displayed alongside the Russian one. Such symbolism bolsters their claim to independence.

At the moment, the outcome of the talks is murky. Last weekend's announcement of a breakthrough, with Chechnya being awarded virtual independence while remaining within the Russian Federation, was clearly premature. To begin with, the negotiators who briefly trumpeted this idea have no authority to sign off on anything.

Chechnya's leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, has dismissed the negotiations as ''hairsplitting.'' Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his defense minister, Pavel Grachev, are loath to yield an inch to Chechen demands.

They may be worried about what part of their country may want to break off next. And, in fact, regional fragmentation is rife within Russia. Siberia has sought a larger share of its own oil revenues. Some outlying oblasts are reportedly selling Russian weaponry abroad.

But most of the political units within the federation, while pursuing their own interests, are probably happy to avoid the burdens of independence. The Chechens won't have a lot of imitators.

For one thing, it's clear to the Chechens and any other independence-minded peoples that they can't count on even verbal support from the West. Washington has been able to muster only tepid criticism of the Russians' vicious crackdown in Chechnya.

So, for now, the best outcome is to keep the talks going after their scheduled resumption on Saturday. Ultimately, Moscow may have to realize that, like the Baltic nations, Chechnya can't be offered just a little independence. And the Chechens will have to find the discipline to outlast Moscow at the negotiating table, rather than head back into battle and inflame their huge neighbor's nationalistic passions.

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