Yeltsin stages visit to Chechnya

The Russian leader follows his ceasefire coup with a sudden visit, reports Helen Womack
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A day after reaching what he called a "historic" peace accord with Chechen separatists in the Kremlin, President Boris Yeltsin yesterday pulled another election rabbit out of the hat, turning up unannounced in the war-ravaged region.

After the heavily stage-managed four hour visit, he said: "My main impression is that peace has come to this republic not only on paper, but in practice. I have not heard a single shot. This is the main joy for the Chechen people, the federal forces and the whole of Russia."

Mr Yeltsin, aware that the tragedy in Chechnya is a top issue for voters in next month's presidential election, said earlier this month that he would visit Grozny. But aides warned him that he ran a grave risk of being assassinated there.

When the new Chechen leader, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, came to Moscow on Monday and agreed on a ceasefire from 1 June, western journalists assumed that Mr Yeltsin would shelve his travel plans. They were therefore taken by surprise when the Interfax News Agency announced at noon that the president had arrived in the Chechen settlement of Pravoberezhnoye and was meeting locals.

The village is in the north of the region, safely in Russian hands. Later, he flew by helicopter to Grozny to speak to soldiers from the 205th Motor Rifle Brigade, but did not venture into the city itself.

"The President has kept his promise and proved that Chechnya is part of Russia," television commented as it showed pictures of Mr Yeltsin standing stiffly by a red, white and blue Russian tricolour as he addressed the servicemen on their parade ground. Not a ruined building or burnt out tank was to be seen.

Then, as quickly as he had arrived, he was off again. By five o'clock in the afternoon, Interfax was reporting Mr Yeltsin's return to the military base at Mozdok in neighbouring north Ossetia. While he was away, Mr Yandarbiyev - the successor to Chechnya's assassinated leader General Dzhokhar Dudayev - stayed in Moscow, evidently to guarantee the President's safe return.

Mr Yeltsin used the visit to try to win the hearts and votes of soldiers who have seen their comrades fall in an often incompetently organised military campaign. Altogether, 30,000have died in a 17-month old conflict which has become Russia's domestic Afghanistan.

"You have finally won," the President told the troops. "We have defeated the mutinous regime of Dudayev." He acknowledged errors had been made, but justified his original decision to send troops to Chechnya in December 1994. "There was a coup here. Power had been seized by the separatists. In carrying out the task (of recovering control), we could not avoid making some grave mistakes. I am not trying to avoid blame."

The soldiers may or may not have been impressed, but conscripts would have been pleased by his announcement that all young men who had served six months in "hot-spots" would be allowed to go home early.

As far as Monday's truce with the separatists was concerned, Mr Yeltsin said experts would now try to develop it so that a more comprehensive agreement could be signed at the end of June. He said he was ready to give the region " maximum autonomy" - but "Chechnya is in Russia and nowhere else".

It remains to be seen how Mr Yandarbiyev, who insists on full independence for "Ichkeria" as the Chechens call their mountain homeland, will respond.

The ceasefire deal, agreed in the Kremlin banqueting hall, was made possible because both sides skirted round the delicate question of Chechnya's future status and concentrated only on silencing the guns. It was welcomed yesterday, more or less sincerely, by almost all Russian politicians, including Mr Yeltsin's communist opponent, Gennady Zyuganov, who has already lost his lead in the opinion polls and now stands to fall further.

Only the extreme nationalist, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, said what he really thought - that the war would start up again as soon as the election was over - and for once seemed to be making a reasonable comment. Hardliners in the Russian army and militants among the Chechens may find that it suits them to go on fighting. The Russian defence minister, Pavel Grachev, has sounded lukewarm about ending the war, while Shamil Basayev - the guerrilla who took hundreds of hostages in a Russian hospital last summer - has stayed silent.

Mr Yeltsin's interest in achieving a truce, even if it is only temporary, is clear enough. The motivation of Mr Yandarbiyev, who had vowed to revenge the death of General Dudayev with a holy war, is harder to fathom. But if the fighting starts again, he will at least have had breathing space to regroup his guerrilla forces.