MOSCOW — It took the pressure of the homestretch in a tight race for reelection, but President Boris Yeltsin finally met face-to-face yesterday with the rebel leader of the rebel Russian republic of Chechnya.
The gesture alone helps to put Yeltsin on the right side of the most damaging issue to his campaign - the witheringly destructive war he launched against the Chechens a year and a half ago.
If the meeting, expected to last for a few days, leads to an actual cease-fire in Chechnya, then not only will the lives of many Chechens and Russians be spared, but, says one Moscow political analyst, "I think it will bring him millions of votes."
The votes, says Andrei Piontkowski, director of the Center for Strategic Studies here, would come from Mr. Yeltsin's traditional base of democratic voters that he has alienated with his violent policy toward Chechnya. More than 30,000 Chechens, most of them civilians, have been killed since Moscow sent troops to the region in December 1994 to quell its independence bid.
The leader of the separatist Chechens, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, knows that agreeing to meet Yeltsin helps the president's reelection bid. But he reportedly has decided that the pressure of the June 16 election is the Chechens' best chance to extract a deal from Moscow.
And although many Chechens have developed a visceral hatred of Yeltsin, they also expect little better treatment from the communist candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, who puts an even stronger emphasis on maintaining the girth of Russia's borders.
To stop or even slow down the fighting in Chechnya, the talks would have to overcome a mountain of earned mistrust.
As the talks began, Defense Minister Pavel Grachev was telling the Russian wire service Itar-Tass that he believed the talks had little chance of success and that only annihilation of the rebel forces would bring peace. He later softened his remarks to put them in line with Yeltsin's, saying the military is ready to withdraw from Chechnya.
When Yeltsin last announced a cease-fire at the end of March, the fire not only did not cease, but escalated markedly with intensive shelling and bombing. This leveling of villages has continued through April and May and led to the killing of Dzhokhar Dudayev, the former Chechen leader, in an explosion a month ago.
Lower-level negotiations last summer produced a military accord that called for Chechens to give up weapons and Russian troops to withdraw. But neither occurred to a significant degree.
Even as Mr. Yandarbiyev was making his way by car to an airport in Ingushetia yesterday for the flight to Moscow, a convoy of trucks was leaving the southern Chechen village of Vedeno in anticipation of a new round of fighting. Rebel commander Shamil Basayev was fortifying the area, villagers said.
But conditions have changed as well. Dudayev's death may have made a personal meeting with the top Chechen leader easier for Yeltsin, who had vilified Dudayev month after month as a bandit who should be prosecuted under criminal law. Many Chechens say personal animosity between Dudayev and Yeltsin made reconciliation unlikely.
Rather than splintering without Dudayev's flamboyant leadership, the Chechens immediately chose Yandarbiyev as political leader and kept the same military commander, Aslan Maskhadov. So the Russians still have someone to negotiate with on the Chechen side who can speak for the rebels as a group, although Defense Minister Grachev says that Yandarbiyev has a weaker hold on leadership than Dudayev did.
Yandarbiyev asserts Chechnya's independence from Russia as adamantly as Dudayev ever did, and Yeltsin is as firm as ever that Chechnya is part of Russia. But the meeting in Moscow was aimed only at stopping the war, not at resolving the fundamental political disputes. And Yandarbiyev, as well as some Chechen field commanders, said that they were ready to make some compromises to end the war.
The Chechens are determined, but the intensity of recent Russian attacks may be wearing them down. More of the fighters' families have become refugees, piling into the homes of relatives. Russian military officials in Chechnya said they had completed their last "special operation" against a rebel stronghold over the weekend with the defeat of the village of Bamut. Yet such statements from Russian commanders have not been reliable in the past
Both sides clearly need a respite from fighting. A top campaign official said Chechnya is one of Yeltsin's top priorities before the election. He must both prevent a terrorist attack, and he must negotiate an end to the war.