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Russian Leadership Crisis Looms As Yeltsin's Chechen War

By Richard Boudreaux
Los Angeles Times

This month, since an ailing Boris N. Yeltsin began a new term, two changes are testing his leadership: 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 re-election 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 in 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 from his fourth trip to the war zone Sunday 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 of the president's own vision or sense of urgency.

"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 at leader at the moment."

It is unclear whether Yeltsin is simply indecisive or physically incapable of such a task. His only public appearance since his re-election last month, aside from film clips 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.

Kremlin watchers say Yeltsin may be distancing himself from Lebed. Yeltsin's style is to play off underlings against each other. 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.