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
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
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
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
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.