Russian national security adviser Alexander Lebed announced Friday that he and his rebel Chechen counterparts had agreed to seek peace and postpone a decision on the status of the rebel republic of Chechnya until Dec. 31, 2001.
Peace has never seemed closer and it was a triumphant moment for Lebed, who has obstinately sought to end the fighting in the face of skepticism from the Kremlin.
“That’s it,” he declared Friday, “It’s the end of the war.”
But the agreement is not yet a guarantee of lasting peace in the secessionist republic. Even if a resolution of Chechnya’s status is deferred, there remains the thorny question of who will run the republic in the meantime.
As he emerged from a 1 a.m. meeting with the top Chechen commander, Aslan Maskhadov, in the village of Khasavyurt in neighboring Dagestan, Lebed said they had signed a statement and agreed on principles for relations between Russia and the Chechen republic.
He gave no further details, but stressed that it was necessary to defer for five years a resolution of the issue that started the war 20 months ago - Chechnya’s demand for independence. “Then, with cool heads, calmly and soberly we will sort out our relations,” he said.
The meeting broke up too late for official reactions in Moscow. But Lebed received good reviews from the negotiators across the table. As he signed the documents, the news agency Interfax reported that members of the Chechen delegation shouted, “Lebed - a real man!” and “Lebed - President!”
Maskhadov also gave no details about the plan, but praised his counterpart. “The war could have ended much earlier, but only today did politicians and military men emerge who really wanted to conclude peace.”
Lebed, not known for his modesty, told reporters, “It’s become a fact today that the best politicians are in the military.”
But there are vast pitfalls on the long way to determining a status for a republic that demands sovereignty, which President Boris Yeltsin has repeatedly said must remain a part of Russia.
Before the meeting, Lebed tried to give an answer to questions about Chechnya’s immediate future, telling reporters, “I don’t know what it will be called, maybe a provisional government, administrative council or provisional administrative council will be put in place.”
Lebed added: “I personally insist that representatives of all the parties, movements, associations would take part in it. It’s a guarantee of civil war if somebody is left out.”
But the effort to bring all the warring sides together to form a provisional coalition government is not easy. Chechen rebels, who have effectively forced Moscow to seek peace, are unlikely to willingly share power with Moscow-backed Chechen leaders.
And Doku Zavgayev, the top Chechen official loyal to Moscow, has been fiercely opposed to Lebed’s peace efforts, saying his plan would leave Chechnya in the control of “terrorists.”
The agreement calls for the two sides to set up a joint commission by Oct. 1 that would monitor a Russian troop withdrawal and coordinate steps to fight crime and terrorism. The commission would also be authorized to work out proposals on the financial relationship between Russia and Chechnya, particularly programs for economic and social recovery.
Even before the meeting Friday, Lebed said he was confident the two sides could reach a compromise. But he warned that the most critical issue, Chechnya’s future status, required “lengthy legal study,” and that Friday’s step would be another in a series necessary to restore peace in Chechnya.
And another key ingredient that was noticeably missing before the agreement was a wholehearted endorsement by Yeltsin.
Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin said Friday that Yeltsin had approved of Lebed’s proposal after reading it in writing.
But Yeltsin did not personally approve or comment on Lebed’s plan, an ominous silence that suggested either misgivings about the policy or more serious health problems than the Kremlin has conceded, and possibly both.