For the first time since it declared war on his breakaway republic and put out a warrant for his arrest, the Russian government Monday sent a peace envoy to meet Chechen President Dzhokar M. Dudayev as both sides struggled for a way to end six months of fighting.
The midnight-to-4 a.m. meeting at Dudayev's mountain hide-out was inconclusive and left peace talks in Grozny, the Chechen capital, deadlocked over the tiny republic's political status. The talks were adjourned until Thursday.
Russian Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, who pushed his government into the negotiations last month after Chechen guerrillas seized part of the Russian city of Budennovsk, earlier warned both sides that the talks are "the last chance for a political settlement."
Chernomyrdin negotiated an end to the six-day siege by allowing 73 guerrillas to flee Budennovsk in exchange for more than 1,000 hostages held in a hospital. He emerged stronger from the ensuing political crisis after Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, reacting to parliamentary censure, fired three ministers who oversaw the Chechen war and two attempts to free the hostages by force.
Having survived Parliament's second, decisive no-confidence vote Saturday, Chernomyrdin can now focus on negotiations to end the war. He said he expects to go to Grozny and take part in the talks.
The negotiator who met with Dudayev is Arkady I. Volsky, an industrialist added to the Russian team as Chernomyrdin's personal delegate. Chechen negotiators drove him from Grozny to Dudayev's undisclosed location in the Caucasus Mountains and back.
Until the post-Budennovsk round of talks, which began June 19, Russia had refused to negotiate with Dudayev, who faces wartime charges of treason and terrorism. It was Dudayev's 3-year-old independence movement that prompted Russia to start the war, which has taken an estimated 20,000 lives.
With Dudayev's fighters all but defeated in Chechnya, Russia has installed a puppet Chechen regime, led by Salambek Khadzhiyev and Umar Avturkhanov. But the two sides have agreed to hold elections of new Chechen leaders Nov. 5, and the peace talks are now focused on how to organize them.
Under Russia's latest proposal, known as the "zero option," Khadzhiyev and Avturkhanov would resign, Dudayev would renounce his claim to the presidency or go into exile and both sides would name an interim coalition government to oversee voting for a new Parliament.
Volsky took the plan to Dudayev and brought back the Chechen leader's response: He will not go into exile, and he will resign as president only if Russia recognizes Chechnya's independence.
Russia's position on that central issue, so far, is essentially unchanged. Moscow is willing to sit down with leaders of Chechnya's newly elected Parliament and negotiate a treaty that would give the mostly Muslim republic a measure of autonomy within the Russian Federation.
"Nobody expected this part to be easy," said an official of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is hosting the talks at its mission in Grozny and serving as a broker. "But the talks are now in their 11th day, and the longer they go on, the more likely that the peace process will become irreversible."
"They are coming up with all kinds of formulas and looking for a compromise," said the official, who sits in on the negotiations. "I see that as a positive sign. Let's see how far they get."
Russia's Independent Television reported that Volsky is expected to meet again with Dudayev, apparently with a Russian counterproposal. The Moscow newspaper Izvestia said Russian officials intend to go ahead with the Nov. 5 elections in Chechnya, with or without a peace accord, so Dudayev is under pressure to compromise if he wants his supporters eligible to run and to take part in supervising the vote.