No end in sight in Chechnya Cease-fire: Yeltsin hopes to boost his election chances but rebels want full independence.

April 03, 1996

PRESIDENT BORIS Yeltsin's decision to halt all major military operations in Chechnya is likely to be as unproductive as Russia's 15-month war in that secessionist southern republic. The problem, of course, is that Chechnyans do not want a high degree of autonomy within Russia. They want independence and will fight for it.

The Chechnyans' intransigence is lamentable. With Mr. Yeltsin facing an uphill re-election battle, they should test his willingness to make meaningful concessions and grant the small republic self-rule. While autonomy may not be a desired solution in highly emotional secessionist situations, it can work if all sides see no other alternative.

A prime example are the Aaland Islands. Sweden was ready to go to war over this sparsely populated archipelago until the League of Nations in 1921 settled the three-year dispute by reaffirming Finland's claims to the islands. The autonomy agreement, which has been revised several times, has made the Swedish-speaking islanders so distinct from Finland that they have their own flag, travel on Aaland passports and have developed laws separate from the mainland. And even though the Aaland Islands are part of Finland, purchasing land and gaining permanent residence there is easier for citizens of Sweden than for Finns.

Could the the success of the demilitarized Aaland Islands be duplicated in Chechnya? Extensive autonomy at least should be tried.

What is worrisome about President Yeltsin's proposal is that he may not be seriously interested in settling the Chechnya dispute. Since his main focus is on winning the June 16 presidential election, he perhaps just wants the Chechnya crisis to recede enough to fulfill that ambition. The Chechnyans, already thoroughly distrustful toward Russians, smell a rat and seem determined to continue fighting.

Since the beginning of the Chechnya tragedy, this newspaper has held a view that the republic's secession from Russia is not desirable because it would serve as a dangerous precedent and a source of instability. Extensive autonomy is a far better solution. But in order for the autonomy to be even considered by Chechnyans, Russian leaders must offer a plan that is so detailed there can be no doubt about its serious intent -- and good faith.

Pub Date: 4/03/96

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