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NEWS ANALYSIS

Boldness Yeltsin Showed in Failed '91 Coup Deserts Him in Chechnya

Russia: Two events test president's mettle: separatists' military success and his security aide's drive for peace.

August 30, 1996|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — In August 1991, when a failed coup d'etat plunged the Soviet Union into its terminal crisis, Boris N. Yeltsin stepped boldly into the power vacuum and, by year's end, into the Kremlin.

This month, since the ailing Russian president began a new term, two changes as sudden as those of five summers ago are testing his leadership with a crisis of his own: Separatist rebels have recaptured much of the breakaway region of Chechnya from Yeltsin's dispirited army, and his ambitious new security aide has seized the moment to sue for peace.

One hopeful result is that a 20-month-old conflict that has cost Russia more than 30,000 lives, billions of dollars and much of its international prestige is closer than ever to a negotiated settlement--an outcome Yeltsin promised at every stop of his reelection campaign.

But it remains doubtful whether Yeltsin, the man who started this war, is capable of the decisive action that only he can take to end it. As at many other critical moments of his presidency, he has dropped from public view and gone on vacation.

He has refused to meet with Alexander I. Lebed since assigning him Aug. 10 to resolve the Chechen conflict and has moved in other ways to undercut his security aide's vaguely defined authority. Even after Lebed returned Sunday from his fourth trip to the war zone with a draft peace treaty to discuss, Yeltsin's office told him, in effect, to mail it in.

Late Wednesday, a spokesman said the vacationing president had received and studied the draft and issued unspecified instructions "designed to consolidate the peace process." The terse statement gave no clue as to the president's own vision or sense of urgency.

In peacetime, the 65-year-old Yeltsin could probably afford to spend most of his term at rest, shuffling ministers, setting the government on autopilot and occasionally checking its course. This month he named a Cabinet as coherent and committed to free-market reform as any other of his presidency.

But Chechnya is different. It was Yeltsin who sent the army there in December 1994 to crush an armed Muslim-led independence movement and to keep fighting when the initial assault failed. The army's recent humiliation and Lebed's proposed peace terms--which reportedly would let the southern republic vote for independence in a referendum--have aroused fierce passions in military and political circles here, leaving them as divided as ever over whether Russian troops should fight on or withdraw in defeat.

"This is very much the president's war," said retired army Gen. Dmitri Trenin, a Moscow defense analyst. "I don't see how these divisions can be reconciled without a very energetic and potent leader at the helm of state. Unfortunately, we do not have such a leader at the moment."

A senior Western diplomat added: "If Yeltsin really wants to pursue Lebed's peace proposal, he's got to back Lebed, and when the generals on the ground in Chechnya get out of hand, he's got to step in again, which may mean firing people. Lebed can't do this on his own authority. Yeltsin has got to be involved almost day to day."

It is unclear whether Yeltsin is simply indecisive or physically incapable of such a task. His only public appearance since his reelection last month, aside from videotapes on television, was a slurring, stiff-legged performance at his Aug. 9 inauguration. Hospitalized twice last year for heart ailments, he is rumored to need bypass surgery.

In any case, Yeltsin's reported decisions on Chechnya this month have been as sporadic as his movements from one Russian health resort to another and equally as puzzling.

Last week, he issued one instruction to continue peace talks and prepare for a troop withdrawal, followed by a contradictory one to take back Grozny, the Chechen capital that had been overrun by separatist rebels. As Lebed was negotiating the cease-fire that took hold last Friday, Yeltsin went on television to criticize him as unproductive.

Kremlin watchers say Yeltsin may be distancing himself from Lebed because he resents subordinates who steal the limelight or fears being tainted if the peace deal goes sour. Yeltsin's czarist style is to magnify his own majesty by playing off underlings against each other, and Lebed suspects he got the Chechen mission because "someone very much wants me to break my neck."

But the 46-year-old Lebed, who makes no secret of his ambition to succeed Yeltsin, has stubbornly put his case on television to a war-weary public and brought the Chechen issue to a head. Much like Yeltsin in the dying days of the Soviet Union, the brash former paratroop general has barreled his way into a vacuum.

"He is forcing Yeltsin to make a decision that Yeltsin wouldn't have to make otherwise," the Western diplomat said.

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