Replay in Chechnya

IT'S clearer than ever that the struggle between Russia and the rebellious southern republic of Chechnya could drag on interminably, and tragically, unless some avenue of negotiation is found.

At this point, in the aftermath of yet another Chechen raid into Russia and another Russian military response, no such avenue is in sight. Hostages have been killed both by their Chechen captors and the Russian bombardment of the village of Pervomaiskoye.

With nationalist emotions high - as evidenced in the recent Russian elections - a forceful response from Moscow was anticipated. It came on Sunday, when President Boris Yeltsin gave up on further efforts to negotiate the hostages' freedom.

The Chechen rebels, indeed, make difficult negotiating partners. Led by former Soviet Air Force Gen. Dzhokar Dudayev, they are more dug in than ever. Their stakes are independence or nothing. And the current Russian assault hints at what ''nothing'' could mean: the truly horrendous crackdown necessary to subdue the Chechens, who have been fighting Russian domination for generations.

Options exist, even if they're far from any theoretical negotiating table in Moscow or Grozny. A neutral third party, maybe Finland or Sweden, or perhaps an international team of some kind, could try to bring the sides together. To what end? Some form of increased autonomy for Chechnya within the Russian Federation. Or even a partition of Chechnya, with rebel strongholds in the mountains granted independence.

Russian face-saving would block such outcomes. But face-saving is what escalated the crisis to begin with. Mr. Yeltsin's decision in 1994 to send 40,000 troops into Chechnya may have sprung from the same thinking that led the Soviet Union, five years ago, to send shock troops into Vilnius, Lithuania, and we know what happened after that. Reliance on the military option could deepen the crisis and spark, not dampen, separatist feelings in other parts of Russia.

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