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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yeltsin Trip to Grozny, a Trip to the Airport

GROZNY -- A shabby memorial to the fallen in action stands in the forecourt of Grozny's Severny airport, one of two main bases for Russian troops in Chechnya and the only place President Boris Yeltsin is expected to go during his upcoming visit.


Painted by the soldiers themselves, the memorial has a feel of sullen rebellion and youth: a crude figure of a mother weeps over a grave against a background of garish camouflage. Spent rocket casings and jars of red poppies stand sentry; empty beer bottles, clumps of cigarettes and live bullets litter the ledge below.


This may provide Yeltsin's only glimpse into the minds and hearts of the soldiers fighting in Chechnya. His visit to Chechnya will be fleeting and he will likely not travel beyond the well-protected confines of Severny airport.


That, at least, is what officers of the 205th regiment based at the airport told a visiting television crew. "He will visit the airport and the garrison next to it," said Ernest Khairullin, a reporter from the state television company of Bashkortostan.


Even that itinerary may prove a security headache for those organizing the presidential visit. While there is little likelihood of Chechen rebel fighters, who have no real ground-to-air missiles, shooting down Yeltsin's plane, the rebels claimed to have shelled the airport base as recently as last week.


Officials at the airport denied anything had happened but Khairullin said that members of the 205th regiment confirmed missiles had landed inside the perimeter. It was not clear if anyone was hurt.


Khairullin, who had visited several Russian bases in Chechnya and Mozdok with his television crew, said living conditions at Severny were like a showplace compared to the abysmal conditions elsewhere.


"The garrison is incredible, they have everything of the best. But the officers say it can never be a real military garrison, it is a Potyomkin garrison," he said. Khankala, another base just a short helicopter ride away.


"He lives in an airplane, ready to leave for Moscow at any moment," Dokka Makhayev, a senior rebel commander said scornfully of Zavgayev.


No Kremlin official has traveled into central Grozny since a spate of bomb attacks last fall. Two of them struck at official motorcades traveling from the airport into the city, another in downtown Grozny left the chief of Russian forces in Chechnya, Anatoly Romanov, in a long-term coma, and a huge explosion outside the central government building killed over a dozen people.


Defense Minister Pavel Grachev and presidential security adviser Yury Baturin both avoided Grozny during a visit in April, arriving at Severny but then flying on by helicopter to observe the withdrawal of two Russian battalions near the Dagestan border.


The drive into the center of town from the airport would not only be a security nightmare but an unwelcome eye-opener of just how the federal forces control Grozny.


Russian soldiers at the first post, on a half-bombed-out bridge, are bunkered down behind huge cement blocks, sandbags and camouflage netting. The government building downtown is surrounded by tanks and new concrete barricades, erected after the rebel attack on Grozny in March when snipers came within 100 meters of the building.


Alik Zulgayev, the Chechen civilian director of the airport, has meanwhile been ordered to ready the dusty makeshift airport for the presidential visit.


Dressed in a smart double-breasted gray suit and making telephone calls from his official car, a white Volga parked in front of two kiosks selling juice, chocolate and vodka, Zulgayev seemed out of place among the camouflage-clad soldiers, barbed wire and combat vehicles swarming around the airport.


"We are working with the military and the senior command to prepare everything, to ensure full security and order," he said. Zulgayev said he had no idea when the president would arrive or what he would do.


Whatever Yeltsin's plans, few at Severny knew about them last week. The head doctor at the military hospital at Severny said he did not expect a visit from the president. The only ones to look pleased were soldiers on the checkpoint at the main gate. "We'll be out of here by then," they grinned.