An election stunt

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 April, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 April, 1996, 12:00am

Many Russians and the vast majority of Chechens would be delighted if they believed Russian President Boris Yeltsin's decision to halt the military offensive in the breakaway region would stop the bloodshed and bring peace. Thirty thousand lives have been lost already in this grisly, genocidal onslaught. Half a million people are homeless in the cold of the Chechen winter and the final status of the region remains unresolved. Moscow has not succeeded in crushing the separatist resistance. Nor has it been flexible in its own determination to keep Chechnya within the vast Russian Federation.

Unfortunately, neither Russian nor Chechen has any reason to believe the President's plan will end this pointless war. Nor have they much reason to believe it was intended to do so. The rebels' response has been to attack a column of soldiers obeying cease-fire orders. Mr Yeltsin is trying to get himself re-elected in the middle of an unpopular war. It is widely assumed the cease-fire is an election stunt and little more.

What would a serious attempt at peace look like? It would probably involve an offer of direct talks with rebel leader Jokhar Dudayev. Instead Mr Yeltsin has offered talks through intermediaries. It would involve some serious attempt at resolving the underlying dispute - perhaps an offer of high degree of autonomy within the Federation. Mr Yeltsin does appear to have offered renewed negotiations on Chechnya's status and new elections. But instead of a negotiated disengagement, Mr Yeltsin has offered only a partial cease-fire and a partial withdrawal from areas where there is no fighting. As a result, his own troops are sitting targets - after having inflicted terrible casualties on the Chechens in recent weeks. Not surprisingly the Chechens are out for easy revenge.

On the face of it, there is little to distinguish this offer from previous offers which failed - except that it comes at a time when the lack of trust between the two sides is greater than ever. What singles it out is the timing. It comes at the start of the presidential election campaign. If the average Russian's reaction is one of cynicism and anger, it will do Mr Yeltsin no more good than continuing the war. He seems, for now, to be as unelectable as before.