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Yeltsin To Vist War-Torn Chechnya

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 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 negotiating table."

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 succeed.

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.