Easy does it Chechnya: As rebel leader Maskhadov is sworn in, provocation attempts abound.

February 13, 1997

THE CHECHNYA CRISIS did not end yesterday with the swearing in of rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov as the secessionist nation's first president. If the bloody 21-month war was tortuously difficult, so will be the road to normalcy.

Among the 13 candidates, Mr. Maskhadov was the most moderate. His convincing victory showed that Chechnyans are weary of bloodshed. They saw the 45-year-old Mr. Maskhadov, who had negotiated a peace treaty with hesitant Russians, as a conciliator and pragmatist capable of assuring peace.

President Maskhadov faces plenty of challenges. His extremist Islamic opponents view him with suspicion. Attempts may even be made by some rival hotheads to achieve with guns -- of which there are plenty -- the victory they could not gain through the ballot box.

The secessionists' peace treaty with Moscow calls for a five-year delay on determining if Chechnya ought to remain part of Russia or become independent. There are pressures from both sides to ignore that cooling-off period. Mr. Maskhadov's extremist rivals want independence now. So does Moscow's mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, who has broken ranks with President Boris Yeltsin and urges that Chechnya be allowed to go its separate way.

Mr. Luzhkov's proposal is little more than a publicity stunt by a man who wants to be Russia's next president. It is not even a well-reasoned stand. The mayor is appealing to the darkest prejudices of his countrymen and claims that Chechnya, if it remains part of Russia, could become a "huge hole flooding Russia with drugs, arms and profiteers" threatening the rest of the country with "terror."

All this is diversion and provocation. There will be more, too. The best way for Mr. Maskhadov to succeed is to keep his cool and let time and events take their course.

Pub Date: 2/13/97

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