Though this week's cease-fire between Russia and the breakaway province of Chechnya comes as a distinct relief, it's still too soon to start cheering.
That's because previous cease-fires have collapsed, there's still an obvious lack of mutual trust, and extremists on either or both sides could still sabotage the deal.Moreover, the new cease-fire seems to be driven more by the June 16 presidential election in Russia than by a sincere desire for peace. Even if hostilities do not resume, some extremely tough negotiations loom ahead on just how much independence, if any, Chechnya is to be permitted.
But at least Russian President Boris Yeltsin is no longer calling for the extermination of the rebels, as he did only three months ago. The fact that both sides jumped at the latest cease-fire proposal indicates that both may have finally become weary of a conflict that has claimed more than 30,000 lives in 17 months. Russia may understandably be embarrassed by the fact that 41,000 of its troops have been tied up by only 1,600 Chechen fighters. The badly depleted rebel forces, for their part, may understandably be demoralized by the recent Russian capture of the last major rebel stronghold in the village of Bamut.
Most encouraging of all is the indication that Yeltsin is paying attention to the Russian people instead of following the standard Kremlin practice of ignoring their wishes at best or even strong-arming them into sullen silence.
Public opinion polls have repeatedly shown that the war is extremely unpopular with the Russian voters and that on June 16 they will support the presidential candidate most likely to end it.
The new cease-fire, then, enables Yeltsin to counter the claims of his Communist opponents that he is a weak has-been who cannot control his government.
The one-page agreement could not be more simple. All hostilities are to end by midnight Friday. All hostages are to be released. Negotiations on all other matters will continue.
With these terms, Yeltsin has shown himself to be willing to bend - but only so far. He still insists that "Chechnya must be a part of Russia." But, he adds, "within that context we can discuss any kind of autonomy." The two sides still seem to be as far apart as ever on how much independence the north Caucasus region can be granted.
Meanwhile, it's no secret that Western leaders want Yeltsin to win the coming election. They see him as the best prospect for Russian democracy and easier to deal with than Yeltsin's main challenger, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov.
At this point, nothing is assured. Not Yeltsin's re-election. Not the continuation of negotiations. Not the survival of the cease-fire. Not even the eventual triumph of mutual exhaustion over mutual hatred between Chechnya and Russia. But the current small glimmer of hope is far better than the total darkness that preceded it.