Struggling to end the deeply unpopular Chechen war before pivotal elections in June, President Boris Yeltsin said Sunday that all major military operations in the secessionist republic in southern Russia would stop at once.
In a speech broadcast to the nation Sunday night and in comments to journalists afterward, Yeltsin said for the first time that he would approve peace talks with the main rebel leader, Gen. Dzhokhar Dudayev. He also said he is ready to grant Chechnya almost any new freedom short of Dudayev’s stated goal of total independence.
“We will be able to give more autonomy to Chechnya than to any other republic of Russia,” Yeltsin said in an interview that also was televised nationally. “We are not afraid of doing that.”
This is not the first peace plan Yeltsin has offered, and it may not be any more successful than those that have gone before it. But the 65-year-old president is running hard for re-election, and he has said publicly that he cannot win if he does not find a way to end the war.
By offering to begin troop withdrawals and negotiations, he essentially has pledged to a weary electorate that he will do all that a reasonable man can to halt the carnage which has killed at least 30,000 people during the 15-month-old conflict.
“This is the strongest step he has taken yet in his election campaign,” Yevgeny Kiselyov, Russia’s most respected television commentator, said after the speech.
In the last two weeks, Yeltsin repeatedly has tried to remind the Russian people of the power of the presidency. For instance, he has started to funnel huge amounts of funds to millions of workers who have not been paid in months, and he has signed an agreement on closer economic cooperation with the leaders of three former Soviet republics.
But not everyone was effusive Sunday night. “He is just repeating old initiatives of the Communists,” said their leader, Gennadi Zyuganov, who is leading Yeltsin in the polls. “He should have done all this before the combat began.”
Another opponent, former Gen. Aleksandr Lebed, said Yeltsin was responsible for the suffering in the first place and that the plan is a “profanity on the eve of the elections.” Lebed also said it would be foolish to think that anybody simply could turn a war off after more than a year of fierce aerial bombardment.
Even as Yeltsin spoke Sunday night, Russian warplanes continued to strike at rebel bases in southern Chechnya, and the Russian commander in the region, Gen. Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, said it would be “impossible” to turn war to peace so quickly.
But that was not Yeltsin’s goal. In most ways, the plan presented Sunday night is simply a political confection: While troops are to be withdrawn, they are to be taken only from areas where there is no conflict now.
Yeltsin said Russian forces would remain to “protect” the constitution and the people. And he admitted he cannot yet find a resolution to the problem that started the war: the Chechen separatists’ insistence on independence and Moscow’s refusal to let the region secede from the nation.
Still, the speech gave Yeltsin the appearance of a man who is willing to give on tough issues and willing to take a risk. Those are traits that Russians love.
He also managed to undercut his main opponents, the Communists, who have called for similar phased withdrawals and talks with Dudayev.
Yeltsin also made a purely political, yet potentially effective, decision Sunday. He put his prime minister, Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, in charge of the peace effort.
Chernomyrdin is a stolid bureaucrat, but unlike Yeltsin, he is not detested by the Chechen rebels - in part because he led what were perceived as successful negotiations over the bloody raid on the southern Russian town of Budyonnovsk last year.
That might make the rebels more willing to take part in this round of talks.