President Boris Yeltsin Wednesday invested national security chief Alexander Lebed with broad new powers to settle the war in Chechnya, as fighting in the Chechen capital of Grozny eased after eight days of fierce combat.
The Chechen rebels, who demand full independence from Moscow, remain in control of most of the regional capital of Grozny, having humiliated Moscow’s troops with a spectacularly successful offensive in the city that began Aug. 6. The past week has seen the worst battles in Chechnya in 18 months.
The diminished fighting Wednesday follows a cease-fire bid by Lebed, who made a dramatic midnight visit to talk with rebel military commanders in the war-torn republic at the beginning of the week.
Yeltsin’s decree, the details of which have not been made public, gives Lebed authority to “coordinate the activities of federal executive bodies” in achieving a Chechnya settlement, the presidential press office said in a statement. At the same time, Russian media reported, Yeltsin dissolved a state commission for Chechnya chaired by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, which Lebed had criticized as ineffective.
The moves appeared to mark a significant victory for Lebed, who had demanded new powers to deal with the war after Yeltsin named him envoy for Chechnya last weekend.
But Yeltsin’s actions also raised the stakes in a very high-risk game for Lebed, a retired army general who finished third in presidential elections earlier this year. If Lebed can somehow parlay his new powers into a lasting peace settlement in Chechnya, he could vastly improve his prospects as the ailing Yeltsin’s heir apparent.
On Monday, following his return from Chechnya, Lebed acknowledged as much, telling a news conference that “someone wants me very much to break my neck over this assignment.”