RUSSIAN President Boris Yeltsin yesterday announced a halt to all troop operations in Chechnya from midnight last night, and for the first time offered political negotiations with separatist leader Gen. Dzhokar Dudayev.
This new attempt to end the 15-month war in the southern republic in the Caucasus Mountains involves unexpected concessions by the Kremlin. It is seen as a key element in President Yeltsin's bid for reelection in June.
Top officials say that even if they cannot solve the Chechen crisis by then, they can at least present the president as a peacemaker.
In a speech broadcast on nationwide television, the president also announced that fresh parliamentary elections would be held in Chechnya, and suggested that Russia might extend a blanket amnesty to almost all guerrilla fighters.
This initiative appears to be the most serious attempt yet by the Russian government to address the underlying political causes of the conflict, following more than a year of fighting that has cost more than 30,000 lives, according to independent observers. The war has reduced much of the Chechen capital of Grozny to rubble and humiliated the Russian Army through its inability to win a decisive victory.
At the same time, Yeltsin's announcement might prove to be merely another bid to buy time. A yawning gulf still remains between General Dudayev's repeated insistence that he will settle for nothing less than full independence for Chechnya, and Moscow's continued refusal to countenance anything more than a measure of autonomy for the region within the Russian Federation.
Yeltsin said he hoped that "perhaps Dudayev is pushing for the maximum with a view to achieving some kind of compromise in the long run."
Halting a recent series of bloody Russian Army assaults that have smashed towns across Chechnya, Yeltsin announced that "all troop operations on the territory of Chechnya shall be terminated from 24:00, March 31."
Russian troops were already withdrawing to the Chechen border, the president said, and a plan for their redeployment has been drawn up. But he also said that "we shall not put up with terrorist acts, and shall respond to them adequately."
While leaving that door open for continued fighting, Yeltsin insisted that combat "shall not be a substitute for political solutions," and said parliamentary elections would be held in Chechnya. He set no date, but announced that a preparatory "forum" of delegates from around Chechnya would be convened "soon."
The call for elections, coupled with a proposal that the Duma (lower house of parliament) declare an amnesty for Dudayev loyalists "with the exception of those who committed grave crimes," suggested that militants would be allowed to stand for election.
Seats in the putative Chechen parliament would give the rebels seats at negotiations on Chechnya's status. Until now, Russian government officials have said they would not negotiate Chechnya's status with rebels. But Yeltsin announced that "we are prepared to go to talks with the Dudayev side through go-betweens."
The mediator's role is expected to be filled by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which brokered peace talks between Dudayev aides and Russian negotiators last summer.
Whether new talks would lead any further than last year's abortive discussions on disarmament, which petered out after three months, is unclear. But even such a respite would see Yeltsin through the June elections without politically embarrassing fighting.
The war has proved extremely unpopular among the Russian electorate, and the president acknowledged last month that unless he could end it, he might as well not bother running for a second term.
Yesterday's speech capped a month of debate by two government commissions about how to end the war. The initiative bore the hallmarks of Viktor Chernomyrdin, the prime minister who favors political negotiations over continued fighting, and marked yet another swing in Moscow's policy toward Chechnya.