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Yeltsin, Maskhadov move toward new Russia-Chechnya deal

August 18, 1997

MOSCOW (AP) _ The presidents of Chechnya and Russia edged closer to compromise on the status of the breakaway republic Monday, agreeing to solve future disagreements through diplomacy instead of gunfire.

Despite both sides’ refusal to publicly drop key demands _ Chechnya’s insistence on independence and Russia’s refusal to let it go _ Aslan Maskhadov and Boris Yeltsin spoke optimistically at a Kremlin meeting of signing a new treaty soon.

After meeting for 90 minutes, Yeltsin and Maskhadov agreed to ``meet one another halfway,″ according to the Russian leader. He said they would set up a joint commission to resolve their differences.

If that doesn’t work, Yeltsin indicated he’ll personally work out an arrangement like the one Moscow has with its republic of Tatarstan, which allows for power-sharing and considerable autonomy.

``I personally am ready to move along this path,″ he said, calling the talks with Maskhadov ``a step towards one another.″

Yeltsin said Russia still wanted some authority in the region, including joint control of borders and air space, which falls short of Chechnya’s demand for full independence as a sovereign nation.

But Maskhadov, whose war-scorched republic has failed to achieve the international recognition it seeks, said he was ``very satisfied″ with the talks.

He told reporters that he and Yeltsin had ``convinced one another that we have common strategic interests″ and must cooperate as close neighbors.

``We must stop fighting and tackle all problems in a diplomatic way,″ he said.

The meeting, coming only three months after Yeltsin and Maskhadov signed a formal peace treaty ending the 1994-96 war, was surrounded by good will. Videotaped footage showed Yeltsin smiling warmly at Maskhadov, and the former foes spoke well of each other.

``We should continue further steps in respect to the freedom of the Chechen Republic,″ Yeltsin told reporters, the Interfax news agency reported.

But ``whatever happens, Russia and Chechnya will deal with one another this way,″ he said, tightly clasping his hands in a show of unity.

Critics in Russia’s communist-dominated State Duma warned that an agreement with Chechnya would lead to more violence and the breakup of the Russian Federation.

Pressed by Maskhadov for more war reparations, Yeltsin voiced surprise to hear that of the $140 million allocated to Chechnya, only $21 million has arrived.

``God only knows where this money is going,″ Interfax quoted Yeltsin as saying.

The spate of kidnappings that has plagued Chechnya this year, which Maskhadov called the republic’s ``shame,″ figured in the Kremlin talks.

Officials announced Monday that the last kidnapped Russian journalists _ prominent Russian correspondent Yelena Masyuk and two crew members from the NTV network _ had been freed Sunday night in neighboring Ingushetia, after 101 days in captivity.

Chechen officials said they were freed in a special operation as part of a crackdown on widespread lawlessness.