I first met Akhmed Zakaev in February 2005 when he was President Maskhadov’s envoy and was taking part in talks, under the auspices of the European Union, with a group from the Soldiers’ Mothers’ Committee of Russia, who came to London to negotiate an end to the bloodshed in Chechnya. A Memorandum outlining a way forward was signed, but less than two weeks later Aslan Maskhadov was killed and the plan came to nothing. After the deadly attacks on the Moscow underground trains on 29th March, and the following explosions in Dagestan, I asked Zakaev, now Head of the Ichkeria government in exile, for an interview.
MK: Who is behind the latest attacks?
Akhmed Zakaev: It is difficult to give a simple answer. We can only analyse these events and compare them with the terrorist attacks that have taken place in Russia over the last ten years since Putin came to power. All the major terrorist attacks, or rather mass murders, that have taken place in Russia have inevitably been followed by reforms of one kind or another, whether political, social or economic.
We remember the apartment bombings in Moscow, Volgodonsk and Buinaksk – they were followed by major political events. It was then that Vladimir Putin, a previously completely unknown man, arrived on the political scene and went on to rise to the highest position in the country, the Russian presidency. The second huge mass murder was that which took place at Moscow’s Dubrovka Theatre. More than one hundred and seventy people were poisoned by an unknown gas and the health of several hundreds others was undermined. This terrible crime was followed by significant changes: the financing of the military and law enforcement ministries, in particular of the FSB, was increased dramatically, ten or twenty times over. And from that day on Putin announced that he no longer acknowledged the legitimacy of the Chechen authorities, the government of Aslan Maskadov, but would hold a so-called referendum with a view to later holding elections in Chechnya.
The next stage was Beslan, a monstrous crime, you cannot call it otherwise. In the aftermath of this tragedy regional elections were cancelled. This was almost a complete rejection of the declared principle of federalism, a federative structure for Russia. After coming to power, Putin gradually withdrew from the 1992 Treaty which formulated the principles of the new state, the Russian Federation, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 2004 he effectively denounced the Treaty. All the subjects of the Russian Federation – republics and regions – that had signed the Treaty and created this state were effectively deprived of the fundamental rights laid down in their own Constitutions and in the Constitution of the Russian Federation: the right to elect their own leader, the right to be elected, the right to their own religion and even to their own language. Russian citizens were deprived of all these fundamental rights. The Treaty was for all intents and purposes revoked.
And what has happened just now, the mass murder in Moscow – as Putin and Medvedev also confirmed – is a link in the chain. And the chain starts not on 29th March 2010, but as far back as September 1999, when the apartment bombings in Moscow took place. It is really to be regretted that all these years the Russian public has in actual fact been held hostage by the anti-national, anti-constitutional policies of the ruling regime. And the moment some protest movement starts - and recently, as we have seen, the opposition has become more active, demanding changes and political reforms, demanding that the constitution be observed, demanding even that Putin resign, and all this against the background of the grand united protest action planned for 31st March – comes this terrorist attack.
Of course, attention was diverted from these protests, but what is remarkable is how well-prepared they were. “Nashi” held a very-well organized demonstration in support of Putin, a man struck Ludmila Alexeeva. I think there were many things that had been stage-managed here…. Even the statement by Dokka Umarov [Dokka Umarov is self-styled head of the Caucasus Emirate, “Amir of the Mujahideen of the Caucasus”], if he really was where he says he was, it would have been technically very difficult for him to make the statement he made on that very day.
MK: It was altogether very bizarre with Umarov. First, there was news of the audio recording transmitted by the First Georgian Channel in which he stated that he had nothing to do with the blasts, and then this video recording.
Akhmed Zakaev: I think something is wrong there in any case. Batukaev, his representative [Shamsuddin Batukaev, a spokesman for the Caucasus Emirate abroad, lives in Turkey], makes a categorical statement, where he denies the Emirate’s responsibility for the attacks, the Georgian Channel transmits the audio recording where Umarov denies responsibility – his own and that of his “mujahideen” - and claims that the FSB is behind the blasts. And the next day we see him in a video recording looking at his watch – in a very stagy, ostentatious gesture, as if to confirm that it is really on the 29th that he is speaking - and declaring: “I am here, I’ve done it, I’ve organized it.” Frankly, I find it hard to believe. Moreover, as somebody who has had some experience with the British system of criminal justice, I know that a confession is not enough for courts here – it is important to prove that this or that crime has been committed. I have no doubt that in a British court of justice Dokka Umarov would not be able to prove that he had organized these terrorist attacks!
MK: You have said many times before that in your opinion the whole Caucasus Emirate was a FSB project…
Akhmed Zakaev: And I am more convinced of this than ever. Moreover, the organisation led by Dokka Umarov was created not to carry out terrorist attacks wherever, whenever and against whoever it wants, but to take responsibility for those terrorist attacks that are carried out wherever, whenever and against whomever it is deemed necessary. This is the role and task of this organisation.
MK: There was also a news item about the speaker of Kadyrov’s parliament, Dukhvakha Abdurakhmanov , who made a statement that it was not the Chechens who had committed these attacks but the Russian special services. How do you explain this statement?
Akhmed Zakaev: The situation there is very complex. After the appointment of Khloponin [A.G. Khloponin has been envoy of the Russian president to the newly-created North Caucasian Federal District since 19 January 2010], there have been very serious disagreements between the new government bodies above the republican level, on the one side, and Kadyrov and his team on the other. The Chechen Parliament had already warned Khloponin not to take any rash decisions on personnel – they have information that Khloponin wanted to make Bislan Gantemirov, who is Kadyrov’s opponent, his deputy.
Dukhvaha Abdurakhmanov is not likely to sneeze without asking Kadyrov’s permission, so Abdurakhmanov’s statement about the security services reflects Kadyrov’s own position. They have developments of their own there, but these are directly connected with the power struggle that has started in Moscow about the right to sit in the Kremlin. And the differences that existed earlier are now becoming public. This is very significant.
MK: Hilary Clinton stated that we all “face the same enemy.” Wherever people are – in the Moscow underground, the London tube or on Madrid trains – they have a common enemy, because there exists a link between terrorists. It is interesting that Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, also stresses that terrorists in Russia draw on international support. Do Russia and the West really face the same enemy? To what extent is the Caucasus Emirate connected to international movements?
Akhmed Zakaev: You know Russia has a long tradition, since tsarist times: to solve her internal problems she links them with international ones. The cruelty of Russian colonial conquests, the so-called “expeditions,” used to horrify Western countries, which were obviously themselves busy colonising the world. So to justify its actions Russia claimed even then that the Chechens with their excessive love of freedom were sowing discord within the empire, and that was why it was necessary to conduct special punitive operations against them. In exactly the same way, when Stalin was preparing the deportation of the Chechens, he announced they were collaborating with the Nazis, and, obviously, the world threatened as it was by the Nazis showed understanding. And after the terrible tragedy of 9/11, Putin declared that Russia was ready to join the coalition fighting international terrorism, but demanded that the war in Chechnya should also be treated as part of this fight. Condoleezza Rice, who was then the US President’s National Security Advisor, replied that the United States could not possibly put the legitimate demands of the Chechen people in this context. But nonetheless Putin made the West take this position, especially after the wars in Iraq, in Afghanistan, began and things were not going too well for the West.
Today Russia has achieved a situation whereby everybody who disagrees with what is happening in North Caucasus, who disagrees with Putin’s policy, is considered an Islamic or international terrorist. And it was in order to stop people asking any questions whatsoever that the Caucasus Emirate was created. Dokka Umarov announced its creation in 2007 in an attempt to abolish the existing official power structures of the Chechen Republic and to remove Chechnya as a separate issue by transforming it into an issue of the North Caucasus - which is part of the world caliphate and is waging war “till the Day of Judgement.” Not against the Russian authorities or against Putin, but against the whole world! This was the moment Putin had been waiting for – for the world to say “yes, we have a common problem, we have an Al-Qaida of our own and they have one of their own.” So if today Clinton and Obama say that terrorist attacks in Russia have been committed by international terrorists, this is a victory that Putin has been hoping for.
MK: But does Dokka Umarov get financial support from Al-Qaida or from other international terrorist centres?
Akhmed Zakaev: According to Dokka Umarov himself, he gets financial support from Moscow. There is an audio recording, its authenticity confirmed by experts, where he is telling his assistant that he has no money problems. He just wants these $50m from Moscow to be transferred to Turkish bank accounts so that this money can be “laundered”.
MK: Does anybody from abroad support him at all?
Akhmed Zakaev: I’ll tell you who supports him. In the Soviet times the Middle East and Arab states were a favoured location for KGB residents. When Putin became head of the FSB - before he became president - he brought all these contacts back to life. And the help that has allegedly been given to the Chechen resistance, and now to the Caucasus Emirate, is sent by Russia not directly but via the Middle East, via Russian agents there. The Caucasus Emirate cannot exist without support of some sort. Once the Caucasus Emirate started putting forward an ideology and goals that are absolutely alien to the Chechen people and other peoples of the Caucasus, it alienated itself from these people and lost their support, the support of society. And if they were to get money from Moscow openly, the young people who they send to die would wonder how it was that at one and the same time they are fighting Putin and getting his money? So to stop the young people, who they are trying to attract, from asking questions, the financing is sent via the Middle East.
MK: What can the West do at present?
Akhmed Zakaev: Unfortunately, the West won’t do anything now. What it could have done is one thing, but you can’t escape the fact that it won’t do anything now. You know, I’ve been in a terrible state since the 29th – yet another murder, and immediately all this hullabaloo around it: journalists, politicians, analysts, all asking for comments, comments … What can one comment here? It’s a tragedy, a real tragedy. But one gets the feeling that everybody is waiting for something terrible like this to happen to start talking about Chechnya, about the North Caucasus and all these issues. And it seems we start such a dance macabre on this blood, on this tragedy – commenting, giving interviews, suspecting somebody, accusing somebody… I think we need to talk about these problems not when horrible events like this take place, but every day, to stop them from happening!
MK: One interesting development has been that many Russian websites have started to talk about the failure of the Kremlin’s Caucasus policy, and that perhaps it would have made sense to deal with Maskhadov. I have even seen interviews where people in semi-official positions have been saying this. But if there had been real talks with Maskhadov, how could events have developed differently?
Akhmed Zakaev: I can assure you that this conflict could have been brought to an end in half an hour. That was what I told Maskhadov - half an hour and the problems would have been solved. However, the worst part of it is not who Putin is, or what he does, the worst part of it is that this person, with all his cruelty and his anti-national policy, meets a need of Russian society. That is the really depressing thing. It is only now that some glimmer of understanding has started to appear – a glimmer of understanding about what this man is doing to Russians, to Russia, to the Russian state. Maybe something will start changing now. But, unfortunately, to this day he has met a need of Russian society – the ratings, even if they were exaggerated, show this. The self-censorship that journalists have subjected themselves to...Of course, it is fear - it cannot be explained otherwise. But the Russian public cannot cope on their own with this phenomenon, with Putinism. And the West as usual is not ready to help or even to give moral support to those who are trying to oppose this phenomenon. There is nothing new in this either – it was the same in Soviet times too. The West strengthened Stalin, and the regimes that followed were also supported by the West. And today with this oil and gas… Europe is always in need of something. It will always need something from Russia. But the thing is that as long as they are going to play along to the tune of these regimes and give them nourishment, the problems Europe has, instead of being resolved, will only become more acute. This is something the West does not understand. As long as the problem of the Russian regime is not solved, the problems in other parts of the world will not be solved either – be they in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, with Al-Qaida or in the North Caucasus.
3 April 2010