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Chechen negotiations suspended envoy cites opposition in Moscow; Accord had been expected; Lebed hopes to meet with Yeltsin, return this week


GROZNY, Russia -- Saying he could not possibly bring peace to Chechnya when so many people in Moscow "want to torpedo the process," Russian national security adviser Alexander I. Lebed yesterday abruptly canceled his most important negotiating session yet and returned home to fight new battles in the Kremlin.

Lebed had fully expected to reach a final agreement yesterday afternoon on Chechnya's relationship with Russia -- the crux of the 20-month war. But as his helicopter was preparing to leave for Novye Atagi, the site of the meetings, he announced he would not attend them.

Late Saturday, Lebed's aides and those of his Chechen counterpart, Aslan Maskhadov, said that an "agreement was nearly certain" and that they expected today to be "a historic day for Russia."

Instead, it was another day of recriminations.

Lebed, as he has done before, accused unnamed enemies in Moscow of trying to prevent him from making the compromises necessary to end the war. He said he would try to meet with President Boris N. Yeltsin today. Yeltsin has not seen Lebed for more than two weeks, since he granted him wide powers to resolve the hostilities with the Chechens.

The rebels seek independence for their republic, one of scores of such regions in the Russian Federation.

Asked how long it would now take before he could hope to have a signed peace treaty in hand, Lebed shrugged and said, "Ask me something easier."

There are many in Moscow who oppose Lebed, and they oppose him for many reasons.

Some object to what they see as the retired army general's quick capitulation to the rebels, his willingness to withdraw Russian troops and his nearly overt admission that Russia has lost this war.

Others fear that Lebed, if he is given credit for ending the seemingly insoluble conflict, will become a likely successor to Yeltsin, who is frail and is rarely seen in public these days.

Lebed promised to return to Grozny, the Chechen capital, later this week. Before leaving Khankala, the Russian military base here where he spent the night, he issued a statement to the Chechen people promising them peace "on the ancient Chechen land."

Lebed said he wanted to discuss details of autonomy for Chechnya within the Russian Federation with experts in Moscow so any document that he signed had value.

And he said that while there had been some violations of the cease-fire he reached last week, "we regard these as misunderstandings."

It should become clear this week whether Lebed has the support of Yeltsin. So far it has been hard to tell, because every time the peace effort seems to lurch a step forward, Yeltsin appears to yank it two steps back.

A rough compromise has already been reached in principle between Lebed and Maskhadov: The Chechens would drop their absolute demand for total independence from Russia for a fixed period of time, probably five years, as Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin recommended over the weekend. At the end of that time there would be a referendum, and Russia would agree to abide by the results.

In theory, this would permit Russia to spend the next five years rebuilding Chechnya, a region about twice the size of Connecticut that has been decimated by the war. Russia has essentially lost the military part of the war; some officials feel it cannot afford to cede the political ground as well.

And Chechnya, whose capital lies in ruins, without running water or electricity, cannot repair the damage without enormous help.

So Russia, scarred by the dissolution of the Soviet empire, would save face and Chechnya would get some aid.

But that aid costs money, and after promising billions of dollars to everyone from miners to soldiers during his election campaign this year, Yeltsin does not have much money left to give.

Pub Date: 8/26/96

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