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Is Chechnya Upstaging Yeltsin's China Visit?

Prague, April 24 (RFE/RL) - When Boris Yeltsin's plane touched down in Beijing today, the red carpet was rolled out. The moment was historic. Indeed, Yeltsin today began the first visit to China by a Russian head of state and only the third trip to that country by a Kremlin leader since the 1950's.

But in Russia today, there was only one place on everyone's mind, and it couldn't have been farther from the Chinese capital. The place was the Chechen village of Gekhi-Chu. Gekhi-chu is a hamlet 30 kilometers southwest of Grozny, where Chechen separatist leader Dzhokhar Dudayev was said to have been killed. And as confirmations and denials flew back and forth, pundits immediately began to spin theories on what impact Dudayev's death could have on the Chechen war, and more directly, on Russian politics and upcoming presidential elections.

Once again, Dzhokhar Dudayev has stolen the spotlight from Yeltsin. News of his death has confirmed that nothing looms as large as Chechnya in the Russian political landscape. Nothing is as uncontrolable and therefore as frustrating for the Russian president. For Yeltsin, perhaps the single mitigating aspect of this war is that his chief rival, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, has no original ideas on how to end the conflict. Not wishing to appear too hawkish, Zyuganov has not called for an escalation of Russian operations. But, apparently afraid of appearing too dovish, neither has he called for a Russian withdrawal. Zyuganov has thus been unable to make much political capital out of the Chechen issue.

But Yeltsin is still the one who started the war, by sending his troops into Chechnya in December 1994, and in the opinion of many Russians, he must be the one to end it.

Yet it seems that every time Yeltsin attempts to seize the initiative, such as when he announced a unilateral "ceasefire" three weeks ago, events conspire to upstage him. After two weeks of assuring the press that fighting had ended, Yeltsin was confronted last week with the deaths of more than 50 Russian soldiers in a Chechen ambush. Before that, it was a suprise attempt by separatists to retake the capital Grozny. Before that, it was the hostage crisis in Pervomaiskoye.

What is worse, each time the Chechens make a move, Yeltsin says one thing and his generals another. The press has begun to ask: is Yeltsin cynically lying or are his military men not following orders? Defense minister Pavel Grachev provided a partial answer in his Duma testimony last week, when he admitted delaying the implementation of Yeltsin's ceasefire orders by at least five days. So far, Yeltsin, who is accompanied on his trip to China by Grachev, has made no public comment.

No one knows how events will unfold in Chechnya, even as it appears now that Dudayev has indeed been killed.

Russia's national newspaper "Nezavisimaya Gazeta" describes Dudayev's designated successor, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, as "an extreme radical," opposed to any negotiation with Moscow. Some say Dudayev's death could encourage revenge attacks against Russian positions. Others say the Chechen independence movement could now fracture. Still others say Dudayev's death could boost the chances of negotiations by enlarging the importance of chief Chechen commander Aslan Maskhadov, who has recently said Chechnya does not seek full independence.

The key point is that all eyes are focused on the Chechens. Whatever they do, will affect the Kremlin.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world Yeltsin is left to wait for news from Chechnya. What happens there seems to matter more than what happens in Beijing. At least for now.