On January 25, Russia’s Foreign Ministry accused Novaya gazeta of spreading “disinformation” in an article published in the biweekly’s January 24 issue and written by its award-winning Chechnya correspondent, Anna Politkovskaya. The article, headlined “The FSB Equipped Its Helsinki Group,” claimed that Akhmad Zakaev, Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskahdov’s London-based special representative, had planned to come to Helsinki at the invitation of Finnish parliamentarians for a seminar on the possibilities for a peaceful settlement of the Chechen conflict. The meeting, according to Politkovskaya, was to include both “representatives of Russian civil society and Chechen belligerents.” Several hours before Zakaev was to leave for Helsinki, Finnish Justice Minister Johannes Koskinen informed Heidi Hautala, chairwoman of the Greens’ parliamentary faction and human rights lawyer Matti Vuori, who were organizing Zakaev’s visit, that, in Politkovskaya’s words, “Zakaev’s safety from Russia’s special services on Finnish territory” could not be guaranteed. She added: “The minister could not give a guarantee that upon arriving in Helsinki, Zakaev would not be, there and then, right on the airfield, forcibly transferred by Russian special service officers to a Russian plane flown in specially for him, which would deliver him for interrogation at Lefortovo.” Russia has accused Zakaev, who received political asylum in Britain, of involvement in terrorist activities – a charge he denies.
Politkovskaya wrote that Zakaev had planned to use the Helsinki meeting to prepare the groundwork for negotiations under the “observation” and “guarantee” of a group of deputies from the European Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), including Swiss parliamentarian Andreas Gross, who is PACE’s rapporteur for the situation in Chechnya, and the Belgian European Parliamentary Deputy Bart Staes. However, according to Politkovskaya, there is a split between the European Parliament, which is for a negotiating process that includes Russian civic groups, and Council of Europe structures, which is “for dialogue, but under Kremlin control.” Andreas Gross, she writes, announced in Helsinki that he has organized a round-table on the Chechen conflict, to be held in Moscow in March and to include people from both sides of the Chechen conflict.
However, according to Politkovskaya, the Chechen side at the planned round-table will be represented by pro-Moscow Chechen President Alu Alkhanov, Chechen State Council Chairman Taus Dzhabrailov, State Duma deputies Akhmar Zavgaev and Ruslan (Khalid) Yamadaev (both of whom are members of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party) and presidential adviser Aslanbek Aslakhanov, among others. “They not only in no way represent Chechen field commanders, but more generally [represent] no one other than Kadyrov Sr. in the past and Kadyrov Jr. now,” Politkovskaya wrote. Meanwhile, the Russian side for the roundtable will include Rodina (Motherland) party leader Dmitri Rogozin and Aleksei Mitrofanov of Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR).
In Politkovskaya’s view, the planned roundtable is an example of the Kremlin’s well-honed tactic of using “doubles” – “absolutely mirror-image but controlled movements, parties, ideas” – with the aim of confusing public opinion and discrediting opponents – in this case, the Union of Soldiers’ Mothers Committees. Late last year, the union’s head, Valentina Melnikova, offered to conduct peace talks with envoys of Aslan Maskhadov. The rebel leader accepted the offer, but a planned meeting between a delegation headed by Melnikova and Akhmed Zakaev planned for Belgium was thwarted when the Belgian authorities failed to grant the soldiers’ mothers visas.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry charged in a statement posted on its website on January 24 that Politkovskaya’s article “crudely distorts the real state of affairs and in essence impugns the capability and sovereignty of that country, at the least is insulting to the Finnish side and is regrettable.” The Foreign Ministry claimed that Zakaev had “refrained from accepting the invitation” to the Helsinki seminar, adding that Finnish Justice Minister Koskinen, “to whom the organizers of the seminar unofficially appealed, did not guarantee [Zakaev] unhindered departure from the country in the event that Russia were to make an official request for his extradition. The minister made a special statement on this point, emphasizing that Russia has placed A. Zakaev on the international wanted list via Interpol and the Finnish side cannot fail to take this into consideration.”