Prague, May 14 (RFE/RL) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin is planning to visit Chechnya in the coming days. The date has not yet been set. It is too dangerous to make this known in advance. But the visit is likely to take place soon. It is a part of Yeltsin's re-election campaign.
Yeltsin appears willing to demonstrate that he is ready to
experience for at least a few hours what young Russian soldiers have
been experiencing for more than a year of war in the rebellious
Caucasian republic. He wants to show he is ready to risk his life.
The president is a courageous man. He has proved it in the past,
when he faced down the putchists in 1991. And he is determined. He
has shown this when he sent troops against the parliament in 1993.
"I will go to Chechnya myself....to sit everybody around the
negotiating table," Yeltsin told voters in the town of Astrakhan last
week. He added that "it is dangerous to go there....but no one else
would sit them down around the negotiating table. I will do it."
But can he do it?
Doku Zavgayev, an ethnic Chechen who acts as head of the
Moscow-sponsored government in the republic but is widely regarded by
its citizens as a traitor, thinks that Yeltsin can do it.
President Yeltsin "is welcomed in Chechnya," Zavgayev told the
Russian media two days ago. And he said that the Chechens are
awaiting Yeltsin's arrival in the hope that he "will help reaching
the settlement" of the war.
The separatists differ. Separatist leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev said two days ago that Yeltsin's visit amounted to a "violation of the
border." He added that he could not guarantee Yeltsin's security if
the Russian president visits Grozny.
The separatists have repeatedly rejected any negotiations with
Zavgayev or his representatives. They also have said that a full
Russian military withdrawal must precede the peace settlement.
"I have no desire to sit at the negotiating table with Yeltsin,"
said separatist commander Shamil Basayev two days ago in a
conversation with a Western press correspondent. He went on to say
that "guns, rocket and tanks are firing at us. If Yeltsin wants
peace, let him withdraw his troops completely and then sit at the
In the meantime, the war goes on. Within the last two or three days, there have been reports on several separatists attacks against
Russian positions in different parts of the republic, including those
in Grozny itself. There have also been reports, including long
footage on Russian national television networks, of Russian assaults
against Chechen villages.
Each sides has issued its own reports on casualties. None appears
reliable. But is clear that many civilians have been killed and/or
maimed, a seemingly normal occurrence in this bitter conflict.
And there is no sign that the violence will end any time soon.
Yesterday, the Russian media reported that Prime Minister Viktor
Chernomyrdin has asked the Organization for Security and Cooperation
in Europe (OSCE) to contact the separatists and offer them an
opportunity to open talks.
Tim Guldiman, head of the OSCE mission in Chechnya, was reported to
have gone to Grozny yesterday. It is far from certain that he will
Also yesterday, Sergei Stepashin, an official in Chernomyrdin's
commission for Chechen settlement, told reporters in Moscow that
Russian secret services are concerned about Yeltsin's safety if and
when he goes to Grozny.
It is widely assumed that Yeltsin would not venture into the Chechen capital itself. He would merely stay at the city's airport. This seems to be the only relatively safe place for the Russians and
their Chechen supporters in the ruined capital. This is where
Zavgayev has his quarters, and important visitors stay. But even this
place is seen by Russian officials as dangerous.
And so it may be a phantom-like visit in this devastated country.
But everything is possible.
Only last week, this eerie town of Grozny formally commemorated the
51st anniversary of the Soviet victory in the Second World War, the
war that saw the entire Chechen population forcibly moved by the
Soviets to Kazakhstan and Siberia as a punishment for alleged collaboration with the Nazis.
It is not clear whether the commemoration was a festive one, and how many Chechens were in attendance.