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Press Review: Russia's Election Headquarters -- Chechnya

Prague, May 24 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Boris Yeltsin's surprise announcement yesterday that he will meet soon with the new leader of the Chechen rebels attracts widespread Western comment. Must comment centers on the political implications for the presidential elections set for June 16.

New York Times writer Michael R. Gordon says in the newspaper today: "The announcement... is a high-stakes step for Yeltsin.... The meeting would be an opportunity to demonstrate his interest in a peace settlement and woo supporters of Grigory Yavlinsky of the liberal Yabloko party, who has made progress toward a settlement a condition for his support. .... For Yandarbiyev there are also potential gains. He would get an opportunity to stand on the world stage with Yeltsin and attract attention to the Chechen cause, which the rebels have repeatedly complained is being ignored by Western nations."

The British newspaper The Guardian carries an analysis by James Meek, writing from Moscow. Meek describes the announcement as "a possible breakthrough in the bloody impasse in Chechnya." He says: "Mr. Yeltsin is desperate to stop the war in Chechnya before the presidential election. But hopes for a deal have to be set against the battle now raging between federal troops and rebels around the Chechen village of Bemut."

Steve Liesman writes in today's Wall Street Journal Europe: "The talks would be the most significant political development since Mr. Yeltsin sent troops into the republic 17 months ago."

In The Washington Post today, David Hoffman writes: "The meeting... could give (Yeltsin) a major political boost just weeks before a presidential election in which he faces a stiff challenge from Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov. The Chechen war has been Yeltsin's greatest political liability, polls show, and even the appearance of progress toward ending the conflict could help him win votes."

"The talks can hardly be seen outside the context of the elections," Helen Womack writes from Moscow in today's issue of Britain's The Independent: "Russians have made clear that they view Chechnya as the number one issue. Mr. Yeltsin regrets having intervened militarily in Chechnya in December 1992. He know his career hangs on finding peace and he has said he is prepared to go to Grozny to seek a solution."

Press commentary also examines other aspects of the Russian presidential campaigns. The New York Times editorializes today: "The revival of the Russian Communist Party so soon after the demise of communism in Russia is a conundrum that seems to defy common sense and the lessons of history. But the Communists are knocking at the gates of the Kremlin again, promoting the fanciful notion that the descendants of Lenin and Stalin are now democrats and capitalists.... As Russians get ready to elect a president next month, there should be no illusions about the nature of the Russian Communist Party. Behind the modern veneer and moderate rhetoric, it remains a force for repression, intolerance, and the reversal of reform.... Russia faces a fateful choice. A communist government might turn out to be no more threatening than the mildest campaign promises of its leaders, but after seven decades of living under communist tyranny it is hard to see why Russians would want to take that chance."

The London Times says today in an editorial: "Already the post-electiion bargaining has begun in Moscow. Grigory Yavlinsky, the boyish, charismatic leader of Russia's dwindling band of reformers, has offered President Yeltsin an informal alliance if he halts the war in Chechnya, sacks the unpopular defense minister, dismissed Viktor Chernomyrdin, the lacklustre prime minister, and commits himself wholeheartedly to further market reforms.... Mr. Yavlinksy cannot expect an immediate answer from Mr. Yeltsin. His demands are high. His deadline is opportunistic, even impudent. But he surely would add to Mr. Yeltsin's apppeal. He would bring back some of the president's early reforming credibility. They should do a deal."

In a "Man in the News profile in The London Times, Richard Beeston calls Yavlinsky a "liberal presidential hopeful (who) represents the last hope for Russia's besieged reform movement."

In another article in the newspaper today, Beeston writes: "Last week (Yavlinsky) took one of his biggest gambles when he presented President Yeltsin with a letter containing a list of demands intended to force the Kremlin back on to the road to reform.... If the Russian leader accepts the demands..., he could have a charismatic, youthful and popular running mate to help him to complete the final stretch of the race. As for Mr. Yavlinsky, although coy about admitting it, he is positioning himself to become Russia's next prime minister and the country's president-in-waiting."

The Chicago Tribune's James Gallagher wrote in the newspaper yesterday: "(Gennadi) Zyuganov, the Communist Party pacesetter in Russia's tightening presidential race... has a firm grip on the calculus of this election. He knows his low-budget, no-frills campaign is being fueled by white-hot outrage. And he stirs the scalding embers every chance he gets. At one public appearance after another, the apparently tireless Zyuganov reminds listeners just how cruelly they have been abused by President Boris Yeltsin's jolting economic reforms, how terrified they are that even worse trials lie ahead, how fervently they thirst for relief -- and revenge.... So far, Russians know little about Zyuganov's economic plans, and, for that matter, about his presidential bid. As a result, Zyuganov has stepped up his complaints that the Russian media are biased toward Yeltsin while ignoring or distorting the communist campaign."

Carol J. Williams wrote yesterday in the Los Angeles Times: "After a week of scandal and speculation over what Communist presidential contender Gennady A. Zyuganov has in mind for Russia's economy should the party of planners regain power, his message to voters is clear -- Trust me on this. The absence of a blueprint for the Communist candidate's vow to wrest Russia from its deep crisis has fanned speculation that the slipping front-runner cannot forge a consensus among the varied movements supporting his bid to unseat President Boris N. Yeltsin. Since an anti-reform program said to have been drafted by top Communists was published last week by the respected newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, Zyuganov's economic advisers have been scrambling to distance the candidate from that controversial document."