After 18 months of a war that has left Chechnya in ruins and has imperiled the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, leaders of both sides signed a treaty at the Kremlin on Monday intended to end the fighting in the secessionist region in southern Russia on Saturday.
Yeltsin has said many times that he never would negotiate directly with the separatists. But clearly believing that he cannot win the Russian presidential election next month without making a dramatic new gesture of peace, he invited the Chechen leader, Zelimkhan Yanderbiyev, to Moscow.
On Monday, wearing his customary camouflage outfit, Yanderbiyev appeared in the capital of the country he always has described as his greatest enemy and declared he is weary of a war that has devastated his land and killed 40,000 of his people.
“We have resolved the key problems of peace in Chechnya,” Yeltsin said after his prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, had signed the peace agreement with Yanderbiyev. “This is a historic day, a historic moment.”
Yanderbiyev, apparently seeing an opening caused by Yeltsin’s perceived need to end the war before the June 16 election, has been far less dogmatic than his predecessor, Dzhokhar Dudayev, who died in a Russian rocket attack last month.
“We will propose to Russia an option for negotiations,” the rebel leader had said Monday, “that will allow the war to stop and the great power to save face.”
No treaty has been signed at this level between the two sides before. A partial accord signed last July proved ineffective.
Monday’s agreement is likely to buy Yeltsin some vital time - and the support of moderates - that he so desperately needs if he is to defeat his Communist challenger, Gennadi Zyuganov. Yet, it is hard to see how this treaty will produce a lasting peace in a region that has struggled with Russia for independence for nearly three centuries.