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Press Review: Chechnya Rises To Top of Russian Political Agenda

Prague, May 27 (RFE/RL) -- A meeting scheduled today between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Chechen rebel leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev again directs the attention of Western commentators to the imminent June 16 presidential election in Russia..

The London Times' Thomas de Waal writes today from Chechnya: "When President Yeltsin receives today the leader of the Chechen rebels -- or 'bandits,' as he has called them in the past -- it will be a tacit acknowledgement that he has failed to crush the separatist rebellion by military means. Finding a solution to the war in Chechnya has become the most urgent policy priority for Mr. Yeltsin as he approaches the... elections because the 17-month-old war continues to be deeply unpopular in Russia."

"Russian troops in Chechnya are scornful; conscripts are tired and scared," James Meek writes in today's issue of the British newspaper The Guardian. He says: "They feel betrayed by the powers that be. They are still loyal to Russia, but only nominally to President Boris Yeltsin, whom many loathe. Most fly the red Soviet flag rather than the Russian one. Their losses are high and -- as in Afghanistan -- it is their suffering, more than that of the Chechen civilian casualities, that angers the Russian people and will cost Mr. Yeltsin dear in the June elections."

James P. Gallagher writes today in the Chicago Tribune: "Yeltsin's meeting with Chechen rebel leaders today could prove to be the make-or-break event of the presidential campaign.... Both sides in the peace talks are predicting significant progress toward ending the (war). A cease-fire coupled with even a tentative timetable for pulling Russian troops out of Chechnya would give the Yeltsin campaign a big boost, especially among liberal voters who believe the use of force to curb secession in the enclave violated democratic ideals. A successful summit would also lend credence to Yeltsin's assertion that he has learned from his mistakes, that he now understands how to make Russia more stable and its people more prosperous."

In The Washington Post Saturday, David Hoffman wrote: " Yeltsin's announced plan to meet with the Chechen leader could provide a needed boost to his reelection campaign.... His chief rival, Communist Party candidate Gennady Zyuganov, criticized the planned meeting as 'insincere.' ...Russia insists the Chechnya region must not secede, but Chechen fighters have vowed to press for full independence. The Moscow talks, the first high-level meeting since the war began 17 months ago, are expected to sidestep the differences and instead focus on working out a cease-fire."

In an editorial today, The London Times looks at the consequences of a communist victory next month: "The hot button issue in the 1950s was 'who lost China?' If Yeltsin goes down, the question 'who lost Russia' will be an infinitely more devastating issue.... A triumph for Gennadi Zyuganov is far from assured. Indeed, what polling evidence there is suggests that Boris Yeltsin may yet be reelected. Even if President Yeltsin does emerge victorious, it will be only by distancing himself from the reform movement he once personified and embracing nationalist causes that the Communists have so successfully adopted. No outcome in this contest is really satisfactory."

The British Daily Telegraph carries today an analysis by Alan Philps. Philps writes from Moscow: "After 17 months of war in Chechnya, President Yeltsin is due to open the first top-level peace talks in Moscow today with the aim of concluding a full ceasefire.... The talks will be the first big step taken by Mr. Yandarbiyev, who took over the separatist movement last month after the death of General Dzhokhar Dudayev, its founder, in a Russian rocket attack.... The talks will deal only with three questions: a ceasefire, disarming the rebels, and freeing prisoners and hostages. The basic issue of Chechnya's place in Russia will not be addressed."

Lee Hockstader writes today in The Washington Post: "Three weeks before the first-round vote, Yeltsin's suddenly hyperactive campaign has made up a tremendous amount of ground, but it still may have a way to go.... According to the polling data available, Yeltsin has roared back from single-digit approval ratings last winter to draw ahead of Zyuganov this month and into first place. His campaign, though poorly organized, is an awesome display of the immense powers of the Russian presidency -- a whirlwind of pork-barrel politics, extravagant spending promises and budget-busting tax breaks. The Russian leader has left no constituency unstroked, no problem untouched."

Hockstader continues: "One day he meets with former dissidents in an effort to patch up his ragged relations with liberals. The next day he dispatches his foreign minister to see Cuban President Fidel Castro, thereby courting hard-line conservatives who want Russia to rekindle old Soviet friendships. At Yeltsin's command, back wages are being paid. Pensions have been increased. There have been initiatives to help miners, home buyers, defense plants, Muslims, children in the North, retirees bilked of their savings and students on skimpy stipends. This week, when the Russian leader meets for the first time with Chechen separatist leaders, he may take real steps toward ending the war in Chechnya."

In the Los Angeles Times today, Carol J. Williams glances into a neglected corner of the presidential race. "The lonely figure of Mikhail S. Gorbachev exits unnoticed from the VIP arrival lounge to a single black Volga idling on the airport tarmac (in Vnukovo, Russia) in the gathering dusk of a late-spring evening," she writes. She goes on, "Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Time magazine's Man of the Decade. A name once synonymous with hope and freedom. The revered object of Gorbymania. Liberator of millions. History may judge the 65-year-old Gorbachev more justly, but in his own country the father of 'perestroika' and 'glasnost' is a nobody. And as he perseveres through insults and indifference in a quixotic quest to win back Russia's highest office, even admirers of one of the most influential political leaders of this century say he has lost touch with reality and succumbed to an undignified end."