Yeltsin Gives In

June 20, 1995

First they tried it Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev's way: force. Two Russian assaults on the Chechen rebels holding 1,500 hostages in a hospital in Budyonnovsk in southern Russia led only to more than 100 hostage deaths.

Then they tried it the way of President Boris Yeltsin's critics in the Duma and in the Group of Seven: politically. Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin took charge and, on the phone before millions of televiewers, conceded rebel commander Shamil Basayev's demands.

With hostages freed, this crisis is over. But it leaves confusion about the future of Chechnya, in or out of the Russian Republic. Its lesson is that terrorism pays, at least when the terrorists are more resolute than the larger society.

Other minorities within Russia may be encouraged to emulate the Chechens. Fear of setting that precedent and nibbling away at Russia explained Mr. Yeltsin's intransigence from the start. Now he has ignominiously backed into moderation, which is worse than having conceded it at the outset.

The crisis has worsened Russian-Chechen communal relations for another generation. Before the declaration of independence, Chechens entertained a view of Russians as brutal imperialists, and Russians of Chechens as criminals. The atrocity at Budyonnovsk only magnified both stereotypes. So it is harder than ever for Russians either to concede gracefully to Chechen aspirations or to reabsorb Chechnya. The last thing Russians want today is more Chechens in Moscow, where they have every right to be if they are its citizens.

The Russian success in saving the Chechen capital of Grozny, by destroying it and driving rebel leader Dzhokhar Dudayev to the hills, boomeranged. Much of what out-gunned Chechen soldiers lost in their own country, they won back as terrorists striking deep into Russia.

Chechnya, on the north slope of the Caucasus, is the smaller prize. Custody of all Russia is at stake. The military command was frustrated and embarrassed. Mr. Yeltsin was humiliated in the eyes of his people, though he probably did the right thing in flying to Halifax. The stock of Mr. Chernomyrdin, who was left to put the fire out, went up.

The consolation for democracy is that political opposition in the Duma turned brutal force into negotiations. The future of Chechnya is not resolved. It has, rather, been relegated to the political arena, from which it should never have been allowed to escape.

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