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Yeltsin's Chechnya's visit Praised and Criticized

Moscow, May 29 (RFE.RL) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin has scored a major electoral campaign success with his lightning trip to Chechnya.

That much has been acknowledged by both his allies and his foes, and has been confirmed by the entire army of international observers.

Moscow political observers and resident diplomats are almost unanimous in their admiration of Yeltsin's tactics and timing. The visit was a political theater at its best. But it also was an important political move in the president's re-election campaign.

Not long ago Yeltsin himself admitted that the conflict with the separatist Caucasian republic constituted the main obstacle in his hopes for re-election.

Now, following the ceasefire agreement, he could claim that past promises to end the violence have been fulfilled. And the drama of the Chechnya visit was but an icing on the cake.

But some are left unimpressed. And there are also those who feel deceived by Yeltsin's Chechnya maneuvers, suspecting him of duplicity. Among these is human rights activist Yelena Bonner.

Bonner told RFE/RL today in Moscow that having watched the president visiting Chechnya on television, she "no longer believes in Yeltsin's resolve to end the war."

Bonner said that the delayed pictures of Yeltsin being welcomed in Chechnya by pro-Moscow Chechen official Doku Zavgayev, a man regarded by many in both Chechnya and Russia as nothing but a Russian stooge, "deeply contradicted" impressions received from the earlier Moscow talks between the president and Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev. Bonner said she considered "the whole action as basically an electoral gimmick, designed to mislead the voters in advance of the coming presidential election.

But she was admittedly surprised by the events. And so were many others. Yeltsin surprised everybody when he announced the peace talks in Moscow with Yandarbiyev. And Yeltsin again stunned the political world when, a day after reaching a ceasefire with the Chechen separatists, he kept the entire Chechen delegation incommunicado in Moscow while making a whirlwind visit to Chechnya. Keeping the separatists in Moscow apparently provided Yeltsin with a measure of security.

So did limiting the visit to Grozny's heavily guarded Severny airport and the nearby village of Pravoberezhnoye. The visit lasted less than four hours. It was kept secret while it lasted.

Afterwards, Yeltsin has owned the airwaves, leaving all his political opponents literally speechless.

But will all this bring a settlement of the Chechnya conflict any closer? It is far from certain. Clearly, a breakthrough on the fundamental issue of Chechnya's independence is still to come.

While visiting Chechnya, Yeltsin made if very clear that in his view Chechnya is and will remain a part of the Russian Federation. The Chechens continue to differ. Their claim to the independence was at the root of the conflict. And it is unlikely they will abandon that demand.

The Moscow talks offered the separatists a measure of Russian and international recognition. The ceasefire agreement might have given them time to regroup and rearm. And the conflict may well resume again.

Perhaps after the Russian presidential elections.