The breakaway region of Chechnya appeared to plunge deeper into chaos yesterday, amid reports that its new rebel chief had been killed by rivals.
Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev was shot dead on Sunday night in a clash with field commanders, according to reports by Russian news agencies. He had taken over as rebel president from Gen. Dzhokar Dudayev, killed in a Russian rocket attack less than a week ago.
Reports of Mr. Yandarbiyev's death, still not confirmed by independent sources at press time, suggested that a power struggle might have broken out between senior figures in the Chechen independence movement.
But some analysts in Moscow said they thought Yandarbiyev was more likely to have been killed by a Russian agent, as part of an effort to weaken the rebels by eliminating their leaders.
Either way, the sudden death of the Chechen leader cast a new shadow of uncertainty over Moscow's efforts to negotiate an end to the 16-month conflict, which has killed more than 30,000 people, mostly civilians.
"There are no more political figures on the Chechen side who can be legitimate leaders of the separatists," says Arkady Popov, deputy head of President Boris Yeltsin's personal think tank.
"Obviously negotiations are necessary, but it is unclear now with whom Russia can hold them," Mr. Popov adds.
President Yeltsin offered peace negotiations with the rebels a month ago, saying he feared his reelection bid would be doomed unless he could end the unpopular war in Chechnya by the time elections are held in June.
Among the handful of Chechen rebels with real authority, the most prominent are Aslan Maskhadov, chief of the general staff, and Shamil Basayev, who led a dramatic hostage-taking raid on the Russian town of Budyonnovsk last year.
Both had pledged loyalty to Yandarbiyev, reputed to be a hard-line proponent of outright independence for Chechnya, and both took part in the council of military leaders that chose him, as vice president, to succeed Dudayev.
BUT neither is seen here as capable either of asserting personal military control over all rebel forces or of exercising sufficient political authority to negotiate a solution to the conflict.
Nor is it likely that either of the two leaders would bow to the other, says Alexander Iskandaria, head of the Moscow Center for Caucasus Research. "Nobody could make Maskhadov obey Basayev, or vice versa," he says.
The Kremlin would clearly prefer to see Mr. Maskhadov emerge as the new Chechen leader. He led the rebel delegation to abortive cease-fire negotiations last year, and is seen as the most moderate Chechen leader. "We know him, and he knows our approach; he could make a much more constructive contribution than a man like Basayev," says Arkady Volsky, who headed the Russian side at last year's talks.
One immediate consequence of Yandarbiyev's death, suggests Mr. Iskandaria, is that a lack of coordination will make dramatic large-scale military actions by the rebels even harder than they have been.
This means that embarrassing attacks such as the assault on the Chechen capital, Grozny, last February, are less likely to complicate Yeltsin's reelection campaign, Iskandaria adds.
"But the benefits for Russia are only short term," he argues. "In the longer term, annihilating Chechen leaders will make the situation harder," because "it will be extremely difficult to find a single leader to negotiate with."
At the same time, adds Mr. Popov, confusion is still the dominant element in any analysis of current events in Chechnya. "It is hard to predict the effects [of Yandarbiyev's death] without knowing for sure that he is dead, let alone how he died," he points out.