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Politically Ailing Yeltsin Searching for Compromise in Rebel Chechenya

By David Hoffman
The Washington Post

President Boris Yeltsin acknowledged Thursday that he cannot be re-elected if Russia's 14-month-old war against the separatist movement in Chechnya continues, but he ruled out withdrawal of Russian troops, saying it would lead to a bloodbath.

The Chechen war has had a corrosive effect on Yeltsin's political standing for more than a year, and recent polls show him trailing several other contenders for the presidency. Although many Russians have recognized that the war is an enormous liability for Yeltsin, his remarks Thursday marked the first time he has acknowledged it could demolish his reelection chances.

Yeltsin announced the appointment of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin to head a government commission that will search for a possible "compromise" resolution of the conflict, which has claimed at least 30,000 lives. Yeltsin said Chernomyrdin's panel would report back in two weeks and examine seven unspecified alternatives for the war.

Meanwhile, large demonstrations against Russian troops continued Thursday in Grozny, thecapital of the breakaway southern region. More than 1,000 Chechens demonstrated in front of the bombed-out Presidential Palace, calling for the Russians to leave, waving the green flag of Chechnya, hanging banners from the building and ignoring orders to disperse.

Yeltsin's blunt admission that the war has sapped his political strength came as he told journalists that he will announce next week during a visit to his home town, the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg, whether he will seek a second term. Yeltsin is expected to run, despite persistent health problems and his weak standing in the polls.

In recent weeks, especially after a Chechen raiding party took hundreds of civilians hostage in the neighboring region of Dagestan, Russian political figures have beenappealing for an end to the war and a pullout of Russian troops. But Yeltsin and his advisers said Thursday they are not considering an immediate withdrawal, and they appeared to be divided over the next steps.

"If the troops are withdrawn, then a total slaughter will happen throughout Chechnya," Yeltsin told reporters. "If the troops aren't withdrawn, it's of no use for me to run for the presidency. People won't elect me."

"Where is the compromise?" he added. "We need to find some compromise that suits everybody, including the people of Chechnya."

Such a compromise apparently could not be found Wednesday at a meeting of Yeltsin's security council, which includes ministers and advisers responsible for the war. Yeltsin's press secretary, Sergei Medvedev, said there were "heated debates" over Chechnya at the meeting, which wound up proposing that Chernomyrdin work it out.

"If Yeltsin is going to be a candidate in the election, he cannot leave Chechnya in the state it is in now," said Eduard Vorobyov, a colonel general who resigned from the Russian army in protest when asked to lead the assault on Grozny in December 1994.

Vorobyov, now a member of the parliament, said in an interview that Yeltsin "has to make a radical decision about Chechnya. The biggest part of the population is against the bloody campaign, and Yeltsin knows it. He cannot ignore this issue any longer - as a human being, as a president and as a candidate."