What Cease-Fire?

DURING World War I, Czar Nicholas II found that issuing orders to the Russian Army was one thing, but getting them implemented was something else. On one such occasion he turned to the British military attache and remarked, "You see what it means to be an autocrat."

Perhaps Russian President Boris Yeltsin is thinking the same thing as he watches what is supposed to be a cease-fire in Chechnya. If this is a cease-fire, it's a mighty strange one. Yeltsin announced that Russian troops would stop combat operations and withdraw, and that negotiations with the Chechens would begin with a view to giving them a very high degree of autonomy.

The Chechens, no dummies they, were skeptical. And they were right: Yeltsin cautioned that operations against "terrorism" in Chechnya would continue. Based on last week's continued heavy fighting, which included Russian planes again bombing civilians, it appears that "terrorists" and "rebels" are synonymous. That doesn't bode well for any future negotiations and makes Yeltsin's move look like a mere election ploy.

Observers have long debated how much Yeltsin really knows about what is going on in Chechnya. On more than one occasion, he has baldly stated that the fighting was over when the opposite was plainly true. What does he think is happening on the ground now? Does he condone it?

The Chechen war poses dilemmas for the West, and for President Clinton, who will soon visit Russia. The international community recognizes Chechnya as a part of Russia, and Moscow is within its rights to use force against an armed rebellion. But Russia's heavy-handed methods have greatly disturbed the world's conscience. More than 30,000 people have been killed, most of them civilians, and for what? Polls show ending the war is most Russians' first priority.

Russia must understand that being part of a community of democratic nations means enduring criticism of your internal affairs.

The West must step up the diplomatic pressure on Yeltsin to implement a real cease-fire and start negotiating. His own reelection may depend on it.

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