Yeltsin Reportedly Grants New Powers to Chechnya Negotiators
MOSCOW (AP) _ Moving to take advantage of momentum in Chechnya peace talks, President Boris Yeltsin reportedly gave sweeping new powers Tuesday to the Russian delegation about to resume negotiations in the Chechen capital.
Russian negotiator Arkady Volsky, who told reporters of the expanded powers, called the round of talks that begins Wednesday in Grozny ``the last chance to peacefully solve the Chechnya issue,″ the Interfax news agency said.
Negotiations in the Chechen capital began last week as part of a concession by Moscow to gain the freedom of about 1,500 hostages held by Chechen rebels in the southern Russian city of Budyonnovsk.
The talks were accompanied by a cease-fire, which remains in effect but is shattered by nightly gunfire in Grozny and occasional attacks by both sides in the Chechen countryside.
Volsky told reporters that the Russian negotiators were now empowered to sign a peace agreement without first getting it approved in Moscow.
``Certain powers have been given to maintain such talks which would have been unthinkable before,″ he said, in remarks reported by Interfax.
Despite the shakiness of the truce, the talks for the first time involve high-level leaders and both sides are showing interest in achieving progress.
Yeltsin offered Tuesday to send a special presidential envoy to the talks or put Russian lawmakers on the negotiating team. Parliament has long urged an end to the costly conflict.
Agreements in principle were reached last week on an exchange of prisoners, the disarmament of Chechen fighters, the withdrawal of most Russian armed forces on Chechen territory and the holding of free elections later this year.
``The end of the war has begun,″ claimed the Chechen delegation leader, Justice Minister Usman Imayev.
The talks are sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Shandor Meszaros, head of the OSCE mission, expressed optimism about a breakthrough, saying: ``Even before a formal agreement, they have started to implement the military accord.″
Russia sent troops into Chechnya in December, expecting to be able to quickly rout rebel forces, oust Dzhokhar Dudayev’s government and quash the region’s three years of self-proclaimed independence.
Across Chechnya, people are exhausted by the brutal war.
``I believe in the talks, as everyone wants peace now _ Chechens and Russians alike,″ said 80-year-old Sayid Baybatirov, speaking in the village of Serzhen Yurt southeast of Grozny.
Any formal agreement would set an important precedent in a region wracked by ethnic and nationalist conflict since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
But many obstacles remain.
The Russians are strongly opposed to the participation of Dudayev in any future elections.
The Chechen side still demands complete independence and is highly unlikely to follow through on its promise to help the Russians hunt down Shamil Basayev, leader of the Budyonnovsk attack.