Russian President Boris Yeltsin carried out a pre-election promise to visit the war-ravaged region of Chechnya Tuesday as he sought to gain political advantage from a peace agreement signed in the Kremlin.
Yeltsin spent four hours visiting Russian troops in Chechnya telling them they had crushed a "mutinous regime" and secured victory in the bloody 17-month conflict."You have finally won," he claimed at the heavily-protected airport in Grozny, capital of the southern Russian region.
But his triumphalist tone was tempered with more moderate promises to rebuild the devastated republic. "This is a land of plenty. It is waiting for working hands," he said.
The signing of a peace agreement on Monday with Chechen leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev and his trip to Chechnya on Tuesday will give considerable momentum to Yeltsin's re-election campaign. It also will help pacify those Russian liberals who have withheld support from Yeltsin and fiercely condemned his conduct of the war.
Yeltsin's security advisers had publicly warned him not to visit Chechnya because of the risks involved. But Yeltsin, fond of the dramatic gesture, overrode their advice, while taking the precaution of keeping Yandarbiyev in Moscow.
Wrong-footed by the move, Communist Party officials described Yeltsin's visit as a "populist step" taken under the indirect protection of Yandarbiyev. But they said Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist Party leader and Yeltsin's chief political rival, was likely to visit Chechnya after the first round of elections on June 16.
Yandarbiyev, who succeeded the assassinated Dzhokhar Dudayev last month as Chechen leader, held further talks in Moscow Tuesday and returned home Tuesday night.
While the two sides have agreed a ceasefire beginning midnight on Friday, an exchange of prisoners and a partial withdrawal of troops, they have not yet tackled the outstanding problem of the region's status, which lies at the heart of the conflict.
Chechen leaders continue to insist on full independence, while Yeltsin has vowed that the republic will never be allowed to leave the Russian Federation.
Mintimer Shaimiev, president of the mainly Muslim Russian republic of Tatarstan who has won a large measure of autonomy from Moscow and has tried to mediate in the dispute, said the peace agreement marked a turning point in the conflict.
"But the parties have much to do to ensure the outline of a peace process sketched in the Kremlin brings a real result," he said. "It is much easier to start a war than to finish it."
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)