Yeltsin Calls Halt to Combat Operations in Chechnya
Mar. 31, 1996
MOSCOW (AP) _ Desperate to show voters he will stop the war that is sinking his presidency, Boris Yeltsin on Sunday announced a halt to combat operations in Chechnya, limited troop withdrawals and a willingness to hold indirect talks with the rebels' leader.
But his long-promised peace plan stopped short of promising an end to the fighting and left scant hope for an imminent settlement.
Yeltsin refused to budge on the separatists' two main demands _ full withdrawal of Russian troops and independence for Chechnya _ and his tone was more tough than conciliatory.
``Without doubt, we will not put up with terrorist acts and we will respond to them adequately,'' Yeltsin said in taped remarks broadcast on television Sunday night.
The announcement came just 11 weeks before Russia's presidential election, with the unpopular Yeltsin trailing Communist Gennady Zyuganov and voters demanding an end to the bloodshed in Chechnya.
It also capped a month of withering air and ground attacks on Chechen strongholds, apparently intended to push the rebels into the southern mountains before the plan was announced.
Thousands of troops were reportedly continuing large-scale operations Sunday in eight sealed-off mountain villages of southeastern Chechnya, and Yeltsin's open-ended statement left it unclear what would become of troops in such hot spots.
The announcement was met with skepticism by politicians, analysts and even Russia's military commander in Chechnya, who cast doubt on the feasibility of the unilateral cease-fire, which Yeltsin said would begin within hours.
``It's unlikely that combat operations will be stopped right after the president's statement,'' Gen. Vyacheslav Tikhomirov told NTV Independent Television from Chechnya. ``You understand, it's impossible.''
A series of broken promises and defied orders throughout the 16-month-old war have raised serious questions both about Yeltsin's intentions and about his control of the army.
His Security Council declared the military operation in Chechnya to be effectively completed as of Jan. 25, 1995. But fighting has raged on for another 14 months and the death toll is now estimated at over 30,000. Most of those killed were civilians.
Reading a statement at his desk, a Russian flag at his side, Yeltsin declared a unilateral cease-fire in Chechnya starting at midnight Sunday, along with unspecified, phased withdrawals ``from the tranquil areas of Chechnya to its administrative borders.''
He said democratic elections for a new Chechen parliament would be held, and he was prepared to hold talks with those loyal to rebel leader Dzhokhar Dudayev ``through go-betweens.''
Talks last year with rebel officials failed, and the Kremlin has refused to negotiate with Dudayev. Yeltsin appeared to signal some flexibility in linking the rebel leader's name to talks, and he acknowledged in follow-up questions by three Russian TV anchors that Dudayev enjoys ``certain, though not quite unsullied, influence'' among Chechens.
Yeltsin said Moscow would try to give Chechnya as much autonomy as possible _ ``more than to any other republic.'' He said Russia does not fear the autonomy of its regions as long as they are peaceful.
But independence remains out of the question.
``We cannot agree that Chechnya is an independent (state) outside Russia. It is a violation of Russia's territorial integrity,'' he said.
Yeltsin acknowledged that the dispute over the southern republic's political status remains a major obstacle to peace.
He said he was directing the government to form a commission, chaired by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, to oversee efforts for a settlement. He also suggested an amnesty for rebel fighters, with Russian lawmakers to determine who would be eligible.
Early political reaction to the plan was mixed.
Reformist legislator Sergei Yushenkov told the Interfax news agency that the plan was ``undoubtedly positive but clearly a belated and insufficient step,'' while presidential candidate and lawmaker Alexander Lebed branded it a ``campaign fraud.''
Zyuganov said Yeltsin's proposals borrowed from past Communist initiatives but were made far too late. ``Negotiations should have been started with the Dudayev side before the beginning of military operations in Chechnya.''
Pavel Felgenhauer, a respected military writer for the Segodnya newspaper, described the proposal as ``a rather clever piece of political maneuvering in a nasty, no-win situation.''
``This is not so much a peace plan as one more unilateral declaration of a cease-fire,'' he said.
``It can bring some downscaling of the fighting, apparently nothing else. But to Yeltsin, it means he can be seen as a peacemaker who offered another olive branch.''