It's a Deal, Says Lebed, but Chechnya Status Still Up in Air

Russian security chief Alexander Lebed, presenting himself as a lone champion of peace in Chechnya, challenged his government colleagues on Sept. 3 to shore up the peace accord he signed with rebel separatist leaders on Aug. 31.

"Future success depends on the government's economic and social policy," he said, urging massive spending to rebuild the shattered republic. "The focus for solving the Chechen conflict has shifted to active government programs that themselves would be the best propaganda for improving relations."

But Mr. Lebed is clearly aware that the deal, which has so far successfully halted hostilities in the breakaway republic, leaves the key question of Chechnya's future status ambiguous, making the deal vulnerable to mischief makers on both sides. "Peace on Chechen and Russian soil requires very serious political will, and unfortunately not everybody is demonstrating that," he told reporters in a sly dig at fellow government leaders who have been less than enthusiastic about the deal.

Lebed even took aim at President Boris Yeltsin, who has rarely been seen in public for the past two months, and who has made no comment on his security adviser's achievement, even refusing to take Lebed's telephone call on Sept. 2. "I can do anything myself," Lebed said, "but some open support from the president would not hurt."

"We have fought down there, now we have come up here to Moscow and we will fight here," he declared, apparently bitter at the lack of support from senior government officials.

At the heart of the treaty that Lebed signed with Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen military commander, is an agreement simply not to address the central question that began the war in which at least 70,000 people have lost their lives according to Lebed - whether Chechnya is an independent state or part of the Russian Federation.

Lebed and Mr. Maskhadov agreed that a decision on Chechnya's status would be deferred for five years, until the end of 2001.

This sleight of hand appeared the only way for Moscow to resolve the dilemma that has trapped the Russian government ever since it sent troops into Chechnya in December 1994: The Kremlin cannot accept any hint of secession from the federation, but neither can its Army win the war. The manner in which rebel forces recaptured the Chechen capital of Grozny in two days last month drove that point home humiliatingly hard.

But Lebed's agreement to withdraw all Russian troops from Chechnya without insisting on a matching disarmament by rebel guerrillas is widely seen in Moscow as a capitulation.

And the agreement to declare Chechnya's status "in suspension" is seen in Chechnya itself as a victory. "We are an independent state," Chechen separatist leader Zelimkhan Yanderbiyev told reporters on Sept 1. "To interpret this as going back on our current status is not correct."

Some of Lebed's government colleagues in Moscow, on the other hand, are warning about the hazards of his peace deal, and powerful voices have been raised in caution. "There is one absolute priority for me with regard to all these problems," said Anatoly Chubais, one of the key figures in President Yeltsin's entourage, "whose violation I regard as absolutely unacceptable under any conditions or at any price. This priority is Russia's territorial integrity."

Lebed's response to such concerns was brusque when he addressed reporters on Tuesday: "It is all very well to talk about [territorial integrity] from Moscow, but have these people come to Khankala [the Russian military headquarters in Chechnya] and let them see what a low point the armed forces have come to."

The Aug. 31 agreement provides for the creation by the end of this month of a joint Russian-Chechen commission to oversee the Russian troop withdrawal and to draft plans for economic and social restoration work within war-ravaged Chechnya. At the same time, Lebed envisages some sort of transitional coalition government, made up of separatist and pro-Moscow Chechen leaders, until elections are held some time in the future.

But how such sworn enemies might work together is unclear. And if Moscow behaves as if Chechnya is Russian while Chechens behave as if they are independent, clashes over practical issues of government policy appear inevitable.

Lebed himself, who signed the Aug. 31 peace accord with a blunt "That's it. The war is over," appears now to have come to a more measured conclusion. "The war is suspended," he said on Sept. 3. "I have not finished my job, I have taken the first steps."

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