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Visit to Grozny Puts Yeltsin in Driver's Seat

  • Jeremy Bransten

Prague, May 28 (RFE/RL) -- A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. During the precious last days of a political campaign, the right picture can be worth even more.

Yesterday, Russian President Boris Yeltsin was in the Kremlin, presiding over a ceasefire agreement with the leader of the Chechen separatists. Today, he was in Grozny, making good on a pledge to visit Chechnya, while Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin continued talks in Moscow with the separatist leadership.

For the first time since the 17-month war began, it appeared that the tanks and the rocket launchers might fall silent in Chechnya - at least for a while.

Equally silent were Yeltsin's electoral rivals. All that could be heard in Moscow, even from the Communists, were faint murmurs of praise. With less than three weeks to go before Russia's presidential election, Yeltsin could not have dreamt of a better scenario - or more precious pictures.

For in the longer run, yesterday's and today's moves by the Kremlin may still amount to little more than what American politicians call "photo opportunities."

Chechen leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev came to Moscow to sign a ceasefire and prisoner-exchange agreement. The brief agreement that he and Prime Minister Chernomyrdin signed commits both sides to "end military activity" in Chechnya starting at midnight this Friday. In the next two weeks, all Chechen hostages held by Russian forces are to be released and all Russian prisoners held by the separatists are to be freed. The key question of Chechen independence, which is at the crux of the whole conflict between Moscow and Grozny - was by prior agreement left off the agenda.

Ceasefires have been declared before in Chechnya - with little effect. Most notably, President Yeltsin ordered a unilateral Russian ceasefire nearly two months ago. Since then, fighting in Chechnya has intensified.

But this time, there seems to be the political will on both sides to halt the carnage. Yeltsin needs to show the Russian people he is taking active steps to end the war before the election. By his own admission, the bloody conflict has overshadowed his re-election bid and provided rivals such as Grigory Yavlinsky with their main weapon against him.

Yandarbiyev, for his part, has only been at the head of the Chechen separatist movement for a month. After weeks of steady losses against Russian forces on the ground, his forces could use a respite. And if he can successfully deliver a ceasefire and prisoner exchange without negotiating away independence, Yandarbiyev's status can only rise among his men.

Both leaders may have the political will, but influential military commanders on both sides appear to oppose any agreement. Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, who was the war's earliest proponent, said as late as last Sunday that peace talks with the Chechens would be useless.

In the past, the Russian military in Chechnya has often ignored political decrees from Moscow and pursued its own battles. Some Chechen field commanders also oppose any dealings with Moscow before the Kremlin withdraws its troops.

During the Kremlin talks yesterday, Yandarbiyev asked Yeltsin if he could really guarantee observance of the ceasefire. Yeltsin tersely replied, "We have no problem with authority." He shot back the question at Yandarbiyev and countered, "Will your side honor the agreement?" Yandarbiyev smiled and told Yeltsin, "We have even fewer problems with authority."

Chechen separatist spokesman Movladi Udugov today praised Russian President Boris Yeltsin for his ability to compromise in reaching yesterday's ceasefire agreement. Movladi Udugov told RFE/RL that the ceasefire proves Yeltsin is sincere about ending the conflict in Chechnya. But he cautioned that the next few days would show whether the Kremlin is committed to halting military operations in the Caucasus republic.

Even if the ceasefire holds, turning a truce into a lasting peace deal will not prove easy. The Chechens, after all, have been fighting Russian subjugation for more than 150 years. And after 30,000 deaths and the devastation of their land in the past 17 months, they will not be satisfied with one of the standard "power sharing" agreements that Yeltsin's government has recently been signing with other republics within the Russian Federation.

All this promises to give the Kremlin plenty of headaches in the weeks and months to come. But as far as Yeltsin is concerned, a ceasefire means much-needed votes at the ballot box.

To borrow another favorite expression among American politicians - he has regained the initiative and is suddenly looking very presidential.