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Yeltsin, Chechen Sign Pact Ending Separatist War

May 13, 1997|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — The presidents of Russia and Chechnya signed a peace treaty Monday declaring an end to the separatist war in Chechnya and pledging to abandon the use of force in settling their disputes.

After signing the peace accord at a Kremlin ceremony, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin and Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov declared that the treaty ends four centuries of armed conflict and will lead to cooperation in halting a recent wave of terrorism in Chechnya and Russia.

The brief agreement did not resolve the pivotal question of whether Chechnya is an independent nation or remains a part of Russia. But tacitly acknowledging Chechnya's goal of secession, the treaty provides that Russia and Chechnya will maintain relations in accordance with the "norms of international law."

The treaty opens the way for the release of prisoners of war by both sides and for renewed economic ties between Russia and Chechnya. It also strengthens Maskhadov's hand as he deals with Chechen extremists who have sought to further the independence movement through violence.

"We have signed a peace treaty of historic dimensions, putting a full stop to 400 years of history," Yeltsin said after signing the pact. "With the help of [other] agreements, we will advance our relations in the economic, trade and other spheres."

Maskhadov, standing beside Yeltsin and wearing his traditional sheepskin hat, agreed: "Today we have shown to all the world that the peace process has materialized."

It was the first time a Chechen president had met with Yeltsin, who recently said the war in Chechnya was the biggest mistake of his presidency. In a symbolic concession to the Chechens, Yeltsin referred to the area as "the Republic of Ichkeria," the name preferred by the separatists.

For more than two centuries, the Muslim people of the Caucasus region fought intermittently with Russia until the mountainous area was annexed in 1859 by the Russian empire. During World War II, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin accused the Chechens of collaborating with the Nazis and deported the entire population to Central Asia, where the Chechens remained for more than a decade before being allowed to return home.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the tiny republic insisted it was an independent state and refused to join the Russian Federation that almost surrounds it. In 1994, Russia accused Chechnya of harboring terrorists and Yeltsin sent in troops to crush the independence movement.

After 21 months, much of Chechnya was destroyed and as many as 80,000 people were dead, but Russia was unable to win the war. With Yeltsin incapacitated by a heart ailment, his then-security chief, Alexander I. Lebed, negotiated an agreement in August that halted the fighting but postponed a decision on the question of Chechnya's independence until 2001.

In recent months, tensions in the region have increased with the kidnapping of about a dozen journalists in Chechnya and two bombings in train stations in southern Russia that killed four and wounded 23. Both sides blame the other for attempting to destabilize the truce.

Maskhadov, a former Soviet army colonel who led the Chechen troops in the war against Russia, has become a voice of moderation as president. By traveling to the Kremlin and meeting with Yeltsin to sign the peace accord, he was able to demonstrate that his strategy of pursuing peace is working.

He told reporters that the treaty will allow Chechnya and Russia to cooperate in combating extremists on both sides who are trying to show that the Chechen government is not in command of the mostly Muslim republic.

"From now on we, the Chechen authorities, the Chechen president, will be demonstrating the efficiency of our power to the whole world," Maskhadov said. "There will be no place for terrorists and kidnappers in Chechnya."

While Chechnya will continue to seek international recognition as an independent nation, the treaty and cooperative agreements signed by the two sides later in the day demonstrate the republic's continued economic dependence on Russia.

"Russia is entering a new historical epoch which is characterized by Russia using not tanks and cannons, but economic strength and potential as its arguments," said Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Movladi Udugov, who accompanied Maskhadov to Moscow. "Well, we're ready to submit to Moscow in this struggle."

The package of agreements will allow the Russian government to reestablish banking ties and resume paying pensions in Chechnya. It also will encourage Russian entrepreneurs to invest in Chechnya and permit the repair of a major oil pipeline that runs through the republic.

Various departments of the two governments--including law enforcement agencies--will begin working together, Russian Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin said, but no aid from Russia will be forthcoming to rebuild the ravaged republic.

The treaty itself is short and simple--only 63 words in Russian--and it appears to be sufficiently ambiguous that both sides can interpret it favorably.

"The high negotiating parties," the accord says, "guided by the wish to put an end to centuries-old confrontation and to establish stable, equitable and mutually advantageous relations, hereby agree:

"To give up the use of force and the threat of using force in tackling all disputed issues; [and] to maintain relations in accordance with the generally recognized principles and norms of international law. . . ."

Lebed, who lost his security post in a spat with Yeltsin after negotiating last year's truce, praised the treaty but warned that there are still those who want to undermine the peace process.

"The more order and peace there is, the more queries will arise on who did what and why," he told Interfax news service. "There are people for whom the war was business and who do not want to answer these questions."

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