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Russians, Chechens Solidify Peace through Brief Treaty

By Richard C. Paddock
Los Angeles Times
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 freeing 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 treaty. "With the help of [other] agreements, we will advance our relations in the economy, trade and other spheres."

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

The meeting to sign the accord was the first time a Chechen president has 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 North 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 they 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 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 Lebed, negotiated an agreement in August that halted the fighting but postponed a decision on the question of Chechnya's independence until the year 2001.

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

Maskhadov, a former Soviet 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 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.

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.