Yeltsin aide secretly pursues Chechen truce Lebed flies to war zone, arranges negotiations

August 13, 1996|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- In a secret foray into Chechnya, national security chief Alexander I. Lebed brought new life to hopes for a serious cease-fire in the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

At the same time, he launched a scathing assault of his own on the Russian handling of the 20-month-old war.

The tough-talking retired army general said he and Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen separatist military leader, agreed on negotiations for a cease-fire and for the withdrawal of rebel fighters from Grozny, the Chechen capital, which they overran last week.

Yeltsin's office issued a statement yesterday saying that Lebed's "proposals for settlement of the situation on the whole, received the Russian president's approval."

The former presidential candidate charged into the negotiations the day after being named the envoy to Chechnya, bringing a war veteran's realism and brutal candor.

The popular retired general's straightforward style in seizing the initiative and offering the rebel high command the respect of military men rather than "bandits" was a marked difference from Yeltsin's previous negotiators.

Even Lebed's critics suggested his bold jump was the closest thing to a real breakthrough in a long series of attempts at what never seemed to be an honest Kremlin effort to find peace.

The war has been a wrenching national tragedy, reminding Russians with every military defeat -- the death toll is more than 30,000 -- that the once great Soviet military was being humbled and humiliated.

Lebed said Maskhadov, the Chechen rebel military leader, and Gen. Konstantin Pulikovsky, acting commander of Russian troops in Chechnya, began talks yesterday afternoon by telephone.

His own secret meeting that started late Sunday and went into the early morning yesterday came in the midst of the worst fighting since the war started 20 months ago. Hundreds of Russian soldiers have died in the past few days trying to retake Grozny.

In a Moscow news conference on his return yesterday, Lebed heaped scorn on the Russian military and the Kremlin management of the bloody conflict, implicitly slashing at his own bosses, President Boris N. Yeltsin and Prime Minister Victor S. Chernomyrdin.

He called Doku Zavgayev a liar, saying the Moscow-backed head of Chechnya was powerless and suggesting he was responsible for the disappearance of millions of dollars in Russian money sent for the rebuilding of the Chechen capital.

And after his overnight drive through the Chechen countryside in which his motorcade was fired on by Russian forces, he said, "I knew that things weren't great there, but I did not expect them to be so bad."

The former paratrooper called the Russian soldiers he saw "weaklings" who were "hungry, lice-ridden and under-clothed."

It was the first time official pronouncements on Chechnya

matched what Russians see on the nightly news and in newspaper headlines about the protracted and unpopular war over the tiny block of land and its Muslim culture.

Lebed's sentiments about the war -- expressed in his salty colloquial Russian -- echo what most Russians feel but no Kremlin official has ever said publicly.

The military-erect Lebed said that what he inherited in the Chechnya envoy post was "an absolutely incomprehensible and inefficient system of bureaucratic work."

He said he wants an investigation of where the deputy envoy he inherited went. "Where is that deputy of mine who was to be permanently in Grozny? According to my information, he is currently on Cyprus having his holiday."

Lebed demanded that heads roll at the Ministry of Defense, the Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service (formerly the KGB) because 'no one was answering the phone "in any of the press offices of those bureaucracies.

"All three press secretaries should be discharged with no severance pay. Let them go fishing and grow raspberries at their dachas [cottages]," Lebed said.

Lebed jetted off to Chechnya less than a day after he was appointed, going directly to see rebel leaders and talking with them from 10 at night until 1 in the morning and coming back with the promise of more talks.

"I'm very much satisfied with what he's doing here," said Andrei Piontkowsky, a political analyst with the Center for Strategic Studies, who also suspects Lebed is motivated by his own desire to become president some day.

"This probably will be a turning point," said Sergei Yushenkov, a democratic parliamentary deputy and opponent of the war. He noted that rebel leaders have said more than once they would like to negotiate with Lebed, who is seen as an honorable military man.

Both pointed to the fact that Lebed had dealt "general-to-general" with Maskhadov, the rebel Chechen military leader, offering a dignity to the Chechen cause that the Kremlin has called a "bandit" operation that should be prosecuted as a criminal enterprise.

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