‘Victory’ Leaves Chechens With an Uncertain Future

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Alexander Lebed was sent by President Boris Yeltsin to negotiate an end to the Chechen Republic’s bloody struggle to become independent of the Russian Federation. He did so and now is under attack from Communists, ultranationalists and some members of Yeltsin’s own entourage for making peace on terms they condemn as humiliating to Russia.

Lebed has supporters, including Defense Minister Igor Rodionov, who is among those best informed about just how poorly Russia’s once feared army did against the Chechens.

The sick and seldom seen Yeltsin, after days of silence, finally passed word through his prime minister that he would accept the accord. In fact, there can be only official relief that the brutal and unpopular war at last seems to have ended. A conflict that former Defense Minister Pavel Grachev initially boasted would be over in six weeks dragged on for 21 months, took at least 30,000 lives--Lebed this week put the figure at 90,000--and left much of Chechnya in ruins. It was a war that Russia’s demoralized and badly equipped troops couldn’t win, but one that the rebels, simply by not losing, could.


The peace pact, in somewhat ambiguous language, says that Chechnya’s final status is to be resolved within five years based on “the norms of international law.” That seems to suggest a plebiscite, in which the Chechens would almost certainly opt for independence after nearly a century and a half under Russia’s rule. It’s that possibility that led to Moscow’s determination to use force to keep Chechnya within the federation, and it’s that possibility and the precedent it presents that help fuel opposition to the agreement Lebed negotiated. The enormous, multiethnic Russian Federation includes 21 republics, six territories, 49 provinces and 10 autonomous areas. If the Chechens should gain their independence, other minorities might well demand the same.

The Chechens’ future nonetheless remains uncertain. Already old clan rivalries threaten to erupt into a renewed fight for power. The Afghan resistance movement, after fighting the Soviet Union to a standstill, fell apart and gave way to a chaotic civil war. If that happens in Chechnya, Moscow might well be tempted to try to reassert control. But it should think twice, and then twice again.