“The Idea of Independence Contradicts the Idea of War”
Akhmed Zakayev, Premier-in-exile of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, talks about the landscape of power in the Caucasus, terrorist attacks by Russian special services and the West’s despicable “realpolitik”
Since Aslan Maskhadov and Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, leaders of the self-proclaimed Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, were murdered and Aleksandr Litvinenko, an ex-officer of the FSB, was poisoned with radioactive polonium-210, Akhmed Zakayev has to be extremely cautious. Yet he agreed to talk to The Ukrainian Week.
UW: What is going on in Chechnya right now?
Russian forces have occupied Chechnya and the country is operating as an occupied state now. Special services have crushed any rays of political or civil life with oppression and outright terror. That’s why the world rarely hears any real information about the situation there.
When peace is war
UW: Many say that neither Dzhokhar Dudayev nor Aslan Maskhadov ever supported the war but sought a negotiated peace.
– Yes, that’s true. We did not revive independence in Chechnya only to drown it in blood and cover the country with ruins. We wanted to see it thrive. The idea of independence has always been optimistic and constructive, completely opposite to that of war, death and destruction. Naturally, both Dzhokhar Dudayev [first President of the self-proclaimed Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, 1991-1996] and Aslan Maskhadov [President in 1997-2005] understood this perfectly well. When Russia attacked the Chechen Republic and war became inevitable, each president in turn was ardent in his efforts to bring the conflict to a peaceful end. These are not empty words: you can find peace-oriented proposals from both Dudayev and Maskhadov in documents.
UW: Maskhadov offered a peace plan for Chechnya that entailed withdrawing Russian troops, dismissing guerilla groups and subjecting Ichkeria to the supervision of the EU, UN and other institutions. Where is it now?
– The peace plan you are talking about is better known as the Plan of Conventional Independence or Akhmadov’s Plan, after the Foreign Affairs Minister of Ichkeria who was in that office when the document was drafted. Ichkeria’s State Defense Committee and the Government approved it together and President Maskhadov signed it. I was Vice Premier then and supported the plan, just like I do now, although back then I made no bones about my doubts that it would be implemented. Today, my skepticism has grown a hundredfold and I don’t think this Plan has any chances of succeeding.
UW: How do you assess current processes in Russia? The threat of a new war in Chechnya?
– The Russian-Chechen War has been going on since 1994. Sometimes it looked like it stopped, but it never actually did. Our enemy simply applied certain tools, including economic and financial embargoes, sabotage, a media war, sponsoring criminals and so on. The war did not stop even in 1997-1999. It only changed faces and instruments. Putin and his circle, including his boy Medvedev, who is now the nominal President of Russia, were brought to power by a surge of chauvinism after the second campaign they launched against Chechnya.
It’s extremely important for Putin to continue to show Russians and the whole world that he succeeded where Yeltsin, his predecessor, failed, that is, that he “brought back Chechnya to the womb of Russia” and “eliminated the threat of the collapse of the Russian Federation.” In every new speech, Putin never tires of highlighting this “achievement” of his. Yet, his bravado appears to convince few in Russia, let alone in the world. People can see how the war, concentrated within Chechnya’s borders at first, has crept throughout the entire Northern Caucasus and South Russia. This is Putin’s real “service to his country,” his main “achievement.”
Clearly, as long as Putin and his boys are in power, it makes no sense to talk of Chechnya’s independence. I’m sure that the current Chekist regime will sacrifice anything and go for any new military crimes to prevent this. Otherwise, it would be political suicide for the Kremlin. This is why I link the independence of Chechnya with real democratization in Russia. And the processes in Russia today give me reason to feel a bit of optimism.
UW: In 2001-2002, you took part in negotiations with President Putin’s people to resolve the conflict. How did that go?
– The Chechens genuinely wanted peace. The war was on our territory, not Russia’s, and tens of thousands of our people were being killed and our cities devastated. Also, we were fighting an enemy with 125 times more people and incomparable material and financial resources. So, of course, we were very keen to stop the killing and martyrdom of our people and to find an acceptable way out of the war. On the Russian side, we didn’t see any genuine desire to halt the war. It was more like a sophisticated special operation to split the Chechen establishment and show peaceful intentions to the West, which had been criticizing the Kremlin harshly for the war at that time.
UW: Why was Maskhadov not supported by the Kremlin and some Chechen military?
– Aslan Maskhadov was a courageous and forceful leader, civilized and ready for reasonable compromise. The Chechen people elected him as a legitimate President and Russia should have recognized this after the whole world did. That was the reason why neither Aslan Maskhadov, nor people like him suited Russia’s leaders, who wanted to present the Chechen resistance to the rest of the world as criminal gangs, terrorists and religious bigots. After the heinous murder of Maskhadov and his successor, Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev, the Kremlin finally got the terrorists and bigots it had wanted, represented by Dokka Umarov and the Udugov brothers who stood behind him.
UW: Some say Maskhadov’s biggest mistake was his hesitation to fight Chechen criminal groups led by real terrorists, like Shamil Basayev. What choice did he have?
– After the first military campaign was over, the efforts of Russian special services and our own mistakes brought us into a very complicated situation where political disparities intertwined with confessional clashes imposed from outside. Meanwhile, growing criminal activity aggravated all these conflicts. In a situation like this, with people armed to their teeth, Maskhadov had to be extremely delicate and cautious to not fuel the armed clashes that the Kremlin so badly wanted to draw Chechnya into. This discretion in his words and actions was not Maskhadov’s weakness or indecisiveness. It mirrored his intention to make every effort to prevent a civil war. Actually, the only choices he had in these circumstances were civil war with an inevitable new attack from Russia or an impossibly difficult process of searching for internal Chechen peace. As to Shamil Basayev, look at his life, and all our lives, in stages. In many ways, the Basayev of 1997 was completely different from the Basayev of five years later.
UW: What about a moderate political wing that’s into cooperation and dialog with the West?
– First, I don’t agree with dividing supporters of Chechnya’s independence into moderate and radical. It doesn’t reflect the reality. There are certain forces in Chechnya acting within the legitimate framework of national sovereignty, and there are others more or less distant from this framework, so in opposition to it. One loose cannon that affects the situation is Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin’s puppet, who denies Chechen sovereignty by referring to the Russian Constitution. Umarov denies it based on his free interpretation of the Shariat. In fact, both are enemies of a Chechen State and each of them is collaborating with external forces. Describing their actions and political positions in terms like “moderate” or “radical” is as useful as using a yardstick to measure body temperature. As I said, Chechen society has forces that abide by legitimate principles of their sovereignty and other forces that undermine and resist it. All these forces should be assessed according to their compliance with the Constitution of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, not on any relative scale.
Our foreign policy priorities are to achieve proper sovereignty for the Chechen Republic, not just to cooperate with the West or the East. Interaction with the West or anyone else is not an end in itself for us.
UW: Why did the Poles arrest you in September 2010 during the Chechen Congress?
– I believe that the Polish people are hostage to the pro-Russian policies of their leaders. With me, official Warsaw was attempting to maneuver between friendly relations with Putin and the Geneva Convention it had signed. When I was arrested, the Poles explained that Russia had had an Interpol search warrant for me for 11 years. All this happened despite, two earlier arrests in Denmark and the UK, after which the courts rejected all of Russia’s accusations and ruled them groundless and politically motivated. The UK granted me political asylum. Ever since, none of the EU states have responded to Moscow’s requests.
It’s strange and illogical that Poland has granted political asylum to over 20,000 Chechens but did what Russia wanted in my case, even though I’d been to Poland many times before, at official meetings with the Sejm and Senate Deputy Speakers. Still, the Polish government played a dirty part in trying to disrupt the III World Chechen Congress. The lower Polish court overruled my arrest while a higher court closed the case down after the prosecutor appealed.
UW: Who might be behind the bombing in Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport?
– I’m convinced that the Domodedovo explosion has the same forces behind it as the attacks in Buynaksk, Moscow and Volgodonsk in the fall 1999. It’s the same people who arranged Nord Ost, Beslan and the murder of 250,000 Chechens, including 40,000 children under the age of 10. The same people who have devastated our towns and cities and evicted hundreds of thousands of civilians from their occupied country. Dokka Umarov claimed responsibility for this and so it has become his unenviable fate to be blamed for all terrorist attacks arranged by the Russian special services ever since. I think it was Robespierre who complained, “It’s impossible to figure out now, where the rebels end and the secret police begins.” A little variation on his quote might suggest that, since Putin came to power in Russia, the line between terrorists and fighters against terrorism has disappeared.
The chronicle of a genocide
UW: What documented information is there about civilian victims and the impact of bombing in Chechnya in both wars?
– The military crimes of the Russian army and special services in Chechnya have been collected and documented by well-known international human rights and aid organizations, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Russian Memorial and so on. When the second war began, the Prosecutor General’s Office of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria started collecting information, too. We are in close contact with human rights organizations. We are also working to introduce military tribunals for crimes in Chechnya. Everyone knows that crimes have been widespread in Russia with Putin in power, too. So, Russian human rights advocates understand us. We cannot launch this tribunal without their support. Russia has huge forces aware that the government needs to ban KGB, no matter what their initials, as a criminal organization that has killed millions in the vast Eurasian region. They wasted a chance when Yeltsin was in power—that’s why the world now has Putin.
UW: Do politicians, the public, scholars and human rights activists in democracies recognize the Chechen genocide?
– Of course, they do. Western politicians of all ideologies understand and feel sorry for the crime and the genocide in Chechnya, but not as deeply, nor in the forms we want to see. Zbigniew Brzezinski once said that Chechnya had become a cemetery of moral values praised by the West. I think this was the most accurate diagnosis and a very harsh verdict against the realpolitik used by the Western leaders to justify their cooperation with Putin’s criminal regime. This regime is guilty of the most bloody and genocidal war in Europe since WWII. Despite all this, we are looking into the future with optimism. This realpolitik is so ugly in its cynicism and so outright unprincipled that the new generation of European politicians is embarrassed to follow it.
UW: How do you see the future of your people and the Chechen Republic?
– Independence first of all should solidify in the minds of the people who form a given national community. A nation should believe in its own strength and its ability to build and maintain such a complex social organization as the modern state. A state goes through the hardest trials in wars, when people are forced to demonstrate the highest level of communal effort. In both wars, the Chechen people stood this hardest test with honor and proved to the world that they are able to set up their own state and keep it running.
Right now, our country is occupied. The government is controlled by an occupying regime that brutally crushes political and civilian life through persecution, terror and kidnapping. But the darkest hour is just before dawn. I have said many times, that once our country is no longer colonized de facto, the occupation will inevitably follow suit. It depends on the next few years. In Russia, there are forces that see the bloody dead end to which Putin’s politics in the Caucasus have taken the country. Moreover, they understand that it’s much safer for Russia to have a peaceful, independent and democratic Chechnya on its southern border, than an endless source of violence. All this gives me inspiration for the future.
Akhmed Zakayev (b. 1959) – exiled acting Premier of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, a self-proclaimed state on the territory of the Chechen Republic within the Russian Soviet Federative Social Republic, now the Russian Federation; occupied by the Russian army since the second Chechen war in 1999.
1981– graduated from Voronezh State Institute of Arts
1991 – Chair, Chechen Association of Theatrical Professionals; Board Member, Russian Association of Theatrical Professionals
1994 – Minister of Culture, Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (CRI), under President Dzhokhar Dudayev
1994–1996– First Chechen War: Field Commander, CRI Armed Forces; commanded Urus-Martan front; awarded rank of Brigadier General and appointed Commander of Ichkeria Western Defense Group
1995–1996 – participated in peace talks with the Russian federal government to resolve the conflict in Chechnya
1996 – National Security Advisor to Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, Acting CRI President; Secretary, Security Council
1998 – Vice Premier, CRI
1999 Second Chechen War – commanded special purpose brigade, personal reserve of Aslan Maskhadov
2000 – injured and moved abroad during the Grozny breakthrough; special representative of Aslan Maskhadov in the West until present
2002 – Chair, CRI Intelligence Committee
October 30, 2002 – arrested at World Chechen Congress (WCC) in Copenhagen at request of Russian government to Interpol
December 2, 2002– Dutch court rejects Russia’s request and releases Akhmed Zakayev.
November 13, 2003– London court rejects Russia’s request to extradite Zakayev and closes his case.
November 29, 2003– Zakayev is granted political asylum in the UK.
October 12, 2010– Zakayev calls for revival of CRI State Defense Committee chaired by Hussein Gakayev.
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