Pullout from Chechnya Defeat: As Russian troops are withdrawn, no final political settlement has been reached.

December 08, 1996

WHEN THE RED Army ended its decade of shame and withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and the Soviet leadership accepted the possibility that Islamic mujahedeen guerrillas would soon control the country. Now that President Boris N. Yeltsin has ended an equally disastrous intervention in Chechnya, it is difficult to predict whether that rebellious republic will eventually break away or be content to exist as an independent region within Russia.

One man who claims to know is ultranationalist demagogue Vladimir Zhirinovsky. He says the pullout represents the beginning of the break-up of Russia. "First goes Chechnya, then other North Caucasus republics, then the Volga republics and then the Siberian ones," Mr. Zhirinovsky told a Moscow television station.

Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, many have predicted that Russia would be split into independent republics. One of the best analysts in Washington even set a timetable and said the Russian Far East would "inevitably" be a separate republic by 1992. It never happened. And even though that far corner of Siberia is experiencing horrendous problems that range from power blackouts to millions of unpaid workers, there is little to suggest that secession and independence are foremost in its disgruntled residents' minds.

Predominantly Islamic and culturally distinctive, Chechnya is a different case. Total independence has been the goal of many of its guerrillas. Yet it would be silly to assume that the Russian military pullout will automatically lead to secession.

President Yeltsin showed considerable political skill in ordering the pullout without any finalized deal about Chechnya's future. Even though communists and ultranationalists talked about treason and impeaching the president, nothing came of it. Most Russians were not happy about the humiliating pullout. But they tended to agree with Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who suggested that "there is no other way to solve the Chechen issue at the present time."

The withdrawal now allows passions inside Chechnya to cool off some. Nothing more needs to be done until the year 2001. In difficult situations, it sometimes is best to do nothing.

Pub Date: 12/08/96

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