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Yeltsin must use ethnic leaders to negotiate peace in Chechnya

In excusing the inexcusable bloodshed that Moscow has unleashed against the civilian population of Chechnya, Russian leaders say they had no choice.

Like Abraham Lincoln waging the bloody Civil War, Russian President Boris Yeltsin had no use force to prevent the republic of Chechnya from seceding from the Russian Federation, says Russia's Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev.

But Kozyrev is wrong: There is an alternative strategy that Russia used in 1994 to defuse another secessionist movement in the restive, oil-rich, ethnic republic of Tatarstan. That strategy - political negotiation and compromise - might still have a chance of working in Chechnya if Russia stopped its military offensive. But time in running out.

The right person to undertake a mediation mission for Moscow would be Tatarstan's president, Mintimer Shaimiev, who has long been willing to act as a go-between. Shaimiev negotiated a deal for his own republic last year under which Tatarstan got considerable economic and cultural autonomy in return for abandoning the quest for formal independence. Now, as the leader of the most prominent Muslim republic within the Russian Federation, he would be well placed to try to mediate similar terms for Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev.

"Yeltsin should send Shaimiev," says Ronald Wixman, a University of Oregon professor, and one of a handful of U.S. experts on the culture and language of the northern Caucasus people. "The right way to do things in the Caucasus is to send a third party to negotiate," Wixman continues. "Doing this would give Dudayev a way out of his previous insistence on total Chechen independence and would allow everyone to save his face."

Tatarstan, which is on the Volga River 500 miles from Moscow, is - like Chechnya - a heavily Muslim region with bitter historical memories of Russian conquest. The Tatars, a Turkic people whose medieval ancestors once ruled much of Russia, were defeated by the legendary Ivan the Terrible in 1522 and still commemorate the anniversary of the sacking of their capital, Kazan.

But Shaimiev, a pragmatic leader, realized tat Tatarstan's geographic position in the bosom of Russia made independence problematic, as did the need to export Tatarstan's oil via pipelines that ran though Russia. So he signed a treaty with Russia in February 1994. At the time, Russian leaders realized the benefit of handling secessionist leaders with care.

Sergei Shakrai, who was then Russia's nationalities minister, said that the Tatarstan model might serve as a basis for bringing the breakaway republic of Chechya back to the fold peacefully. "Treaties of this kind," Yeltsin said at the time, "are basically the sole constitutional way of removing contradictions" between Moscow and the republics "in a civilized way, without twisting anybody's arm".

Tragically, Yeltsin forgot that wisdom. He also removed Shakrai's successor, Nokolai Yegorov, has been one of the prime movers of the sisastrous policy of trying to subdue Chechenya by force.

Last December, Shaimiev suggested to Yeltsin that leaders of ethnic republic within Russia should mediate between Moscow and Chechnya. Shaimiev is likely to make a similar proposal this week in the Hague, Netherlands, where he and other leaders of contested ethnic areas inside former Soviet republics are meeting to try to discuss how to avoid future Chechnyas.

"The model which exists is Tatarstan," says Bruce Allyn, one of the organizers of the conference, funded by the Carnegie Corp, of New York. "And Shaimiev understands the mentality of small nations."

The obvious question is why Yeltsin chose to ignore the Tatarstan model. Experts like Wixman believe that the answer lies in Moscow politics not in bloody Chechnya.

Yeltsin seems to have surrounded himself with security and intelligence officials who deemed it necessary to make an example of Chechen leader Dudayev. Chechnya sits in a more strategic location that Tatarstan, astride a major oil pipeline from the southern Caucasus and on Russia's border. The Chechens also have an even more bitter history of oppression by Russian and Soviet leaders than do the Tatars.

But the resort to force in Chechnya cannot resolve the problem of the scores of restive ethnic groups and far-flung regions in Russia. Should the Chechen capital of Grozny finally fall to Russian military forces, many informed observers believe that Russian troops would be sucked into an extensive guerrilla war. Chechens would fight the Russians from the mountains as their ancestors did in the last century. The prospect of a second Afganistan has already split the Russian army. In the wake of the horribly botched attack on Crozny that claimed many soldiers' lives, military dissent is likely to grow.

Next week Secretary of State Warren Cristopher is meeting with Foreign Minister Kozyrev in Geneva. He should deliver a firm message that, while America wants a warm relationship with Moscow, the military destruction of Grozny violates all international norms.

But more than that, Christopher might suggest that - contrary to remarks by the State Department spokesman last week - that the Lincoln analogy doesn't work. Unlike 19th century America, where brother sometimes fought brother, Russia is a mosaic of ethnic groups that could splinter apart if force is the only method Moscow uses to keep the federation together.

Tatar leader Shaimiev is available to mediate between Moscow and Grozny. Chechen leader Dudayev has said he is willing to talk. Christopher should press the Russians to seize the negotiating options before it is too late.

By TRUDY RUBIN. "The Philadelphia Inquirer", January 13,1995