The Chechen factor is one of the controversial issues in the modern history of Azerbaijan. Since the first Russo-Chechen war, Azerbaijan did not pursue a consistent policy concerning the conflict in the North Caucasus. While officially the authorities denied any help to the Chechen mujahideen, various NGOs and private citizens were helping the Chechen cause. Azerbaijani hospitals were helping the Chechen resistance by treating wounded guerrillas. Even the late President Geidar Aliyev acknowledged that wounded Chechens were being treated in Baku hospitals, but denied that they were involved in terrorist activities. Azerbaijan was one of the destinations where Chechen refugees went to avoid atrocities and persecution. Up to 3,000 Chechens, mostly women and children, found refuge in the country during 1994-1996. In the course of the second Russo-Chechen war, the number of refugees reached almost 10,000.
Both the second Russo-Chechen war as well as Putin’s aggressive policy in the former Soviet space forced Azerbaijan to change its attitude and policy toward the conflict. The xenophobia against any Muslim resistance that followed the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States led Azerbaijan to cut off almost all unofficial support to the Chechens. In the meantime, some the Chechen refugees started to trouble the Azerbaijani authorities. Between 2001-2003, the successful penetration of Salafi ideology became one of the main problems for Azerbaijan’s security agencies. Salafi missionaries (wrongly called Wahabbi) from Chechnya, Dagestan and Persian Gulf countries were actively penetrating Azerbaijan. Due to the fact that Azerbaijanis are predominantly (75-80 percent) Shi’a Muslims, Salafism did not find a broad base among the local population. The Chechen refugees, however, especially the youth, were very receptive to Salafi ideas.
In mid-2001, Azerbaijani authorities started to crack-down on Salafi cells of the country. Since at least half of the Salafis in the country were Chechens, the purge hit Chechens the most. In 2001, Azerbaijani officials also launched an unofficial campaign against Chechens, forcing them to leave the country. Some of them were extradited to Russia as terrorists and guerrillas. In May 2001, Aslan Maskhadov called on Chechens to leave Azerbaijan due to the danger they were experiencing there. As a result, up to 5,000 Chechens left the country (Terrorism Monitor, July 1, 2005). The Chechen emissaries were also very active in recruiting Azerbaijanis to fight in Chechnya. In 2001, the Court on Heavy Crimes sentenced 12 Azerbaijanis who aspired to fight in Chechnya. During the trial it was revealed that these young people were recruited at the Abu Bakr mosque in Baku, which has a reputation as a center of Salafi propaganda. Since 2001, up to 100 people have been sentenced to different terms on the same charges (TURAN Information Agency, April 18, 2005).
It is not difficult to understand the reasons for the Azerbaijani authorities’ alacrity in pushing Chechens out of the country. The Chechen community presents a threat to the country’s internal balance. The radical outlooks of many of them, as well as their military background, could easily be used by external or internal forces to destabilize the situation in Azerbaijan. Active recruitment of local Azerbaijanis for fighting in Chechnya could have a detrimental effect on the future of the country. Azerbaijanis who go to fight in Chechnya could return home with radical ideas combined with a zeal to change the country’s regime. Their situation should be viewed as one similar to that of the Saudi mujahideen who came back from fighting in Afghanistan at the end of the 1980s and were eager to change the regime in Riyadh.
As in many countries of the former Soviet Union, Chechens in Azerbaijan had the negative reputation of being ruthless gangster-mercenaries who could be hired to do “dirty work.” Only a minority of the Chechens participate in criminal activities. Yet due to the tendentious Russian TV channels that are broadcast in Azerbaijan, many Azerbaijanis were influenced by anti-Chechen propaganda. Despite the fact that Chechens may have been involved in criminal activities earlier, the authorities started to pay attention to the Chechen criminal factor in the summer of 2001, when four Chechen criminals murdered two policemen in the northern regions of Azerbaijan. After several other kidnapping incidents involving Chechens, the Azerbaijani law enforcement agencies intensified their activities against Chechen criminals.
In March 2005, the Azerbaijani public was shocked by a scandal that involved high-ranking officers of the Azerbaijani police. Police colonel-lieutenant Haji Mammadov was discovered to the head a criminal gang that was involved in many kidnapping and murder cases. According to the i the Prosecutor’s Office, four Chechen citizens were active members of the gang. As usual, the Chechens were used for “dirty” work—i.e., assassination missions. For example, they were involved in murder of Rovshan Aliyev, an employee of the Prosecutor’s Office (Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 15, 2005).
The Chechen “threat”—whether real or not—is used by law enforcement agencies in Azerbaijan. Usually, a wave of persecution against Chechens coincides with some important events. On the eve of Putin’s visit to Baku in January of 2001, for instance, Azerbaijani special services and the police “cleaned” Baku from Chechen elements. Meanwhile, the Ministry of National Security “revealed” a plot of al-Qaeda to kill Putin. Allegedly, Kianan Rostam, an Iraqi citizen who fought in Chechnya and Afghanistan, was supposed to assassinate Putin.
In another case, the Azerbaijani law enforcement organs used the Chechen threat in order to discredit the local political opposition. Five months before the 2005 parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan, the Azerbaijani special services reported that Azeri Alimurad Nakhmedov and Chechen Ali Sagiyev were arrested on charges of terrorism. Both were allegedly plotting to blow up the cars of Tagi Ibrahimov, president of Azad Azerbaijan TV Company, and Bahram Shukurov, Judge of the Appeal Court. Supposedly, the organizers of these terrorist attacks were members of the opposition party Musavat, which “tried to destabilize public life in Baku on the eve of parliament elections” (Interfax, June 14, 2005).
A new wave of persecution against Chechens started with the appointment of a new minister of national security. Eldar Mahmudov, general of police, was elected minister in July 2004. Mahmudov, who became the first minister of national security without working in the intelligence field, has a different point of view on the activities of radical and criminal organizations. Looking from the eyes of a former police bureaucrat, he radically started to crack-down on organizations with ties to Chechens. Mostly using police methods, for a period of less than a year, the ministry revealed several terrorist organizations “closely connected with al-Qaeda.” Members of these organizations are usually incriminated with charges to attempt to overthrow the secular regime of the country or execute terrorist attacks against foreign citizens.
One of the convicted Chechen terrorists was war veteran Haji Jankayev. Russian authorities have already asked the Azerbaijani government to extradite him for trial. The Russian side believes that Jankayev was involved in a terrorist act in the city of Kaspiysk, which claimed the lives of 43 people. Azerbaijani human rights activists, however, stated that Jankayev’s role in the Kaspiysk terrorist attack is not proven by the trial. They argue that Jankayev can not be extradited to Russia because he received political asylum in Azerbaijan in 2003 (TURAN News Agency, March 5, 2006).
Most of the actions of the Azerbaijani government are dictated by the desire not to irritate Russia. For a short time, many Chechens were extradited to Russia. It is not excluded that some of them were people involved in crime and terrorist activities. The Russian government, however, does not give valid proof of their guilt. In contrast, the Georgian government refused to extradite Chechens to Russia, insisting that the Chechens were political refugees.
The rights of many ordinary Chechens in Azerbaijan are severely violated. Due to the fact that they have no citizenship rights, most of the refugees have a hard time trying to survive in Azerbaijan. In addition, various Azerbaijani ministries harass them. The Ministry of Education, for example, did not allow Chechen children to attend public schools. Azerbaijani state institutions refuse to register new-born Chechen babies and withhold legal documents such as birth certificates. The widespread xenophobia against Chechens following the Dubrovka theater siege and Russian pressure forced the Azerbaijani government to close the Chechen Cultural Center in Baku. The Center, which used to function as the unofficial embassy of the Maskhadov government, was one of the rare sources of aid for Chechen refugees.
Intensified relations between Russia’s special services and Azerbaijani intelligence allowed Russia’s FSB to operate freely in Azerbaijan. Several prominent Chechen leaders were assassinated or harassed. The Chechens believe that all these actions were organized by the Russian special services and Kadyrov’s people. In 2002, authorities in Azerbaijan detained five suspected Russian spies. The men admitted that they had been monitoring ethnic Chechens living in the former Soviet republic and were handed over to the Russian Embassy to be sent home (BBC, April 9, 2002).
Russia has consistently pressed Azerbaijan to cut all ties with Maskhadov’s people and cooperate with the Kadyrov government. Ramzan Kadyrov himself is planning to visit Azerbaijan soon. Criticized by the international community for atrocities in Chechnya and for establishing a puppet government there, President Vladimir Putin is desperately trying to present the government in Chechnya as the only legitimate power in the war-torn republic. For this purpose, Putin is pushing Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov to visit foreign countries in order to boost his prestige. Unfortunately, Kadyrov can hardly visit European or Islamic countries. The only option lies in the Caucasian republics. Due to difficult relations between Georgia and Russia, Kadyrov will definitely not be able to visit Georgia. Armenia will hardly be a good choice for Kadyrov, even when taking into consideration the good relations between Russia and Armenia. Thus, Azerbaijan may be the best choice Kadyrov can make in order to start his diplomatic breakthrough. In addition, and official meeting with Allahshukur Pashazade, Sheikh ul Islam of Caucasus, will boost Kadyrov’s reputation among religious people in Chechnya.
Talk of a possible Kadyrov visit enraged many Chechen refugees. In mid-April 2006, Anzor Maskhadov, the son of the slain Chechen president who resides with his family in Baku, gave an extensive interview to the Azerbaijani local press. In the interview he said that it would be a shame for any country to receive Kadyrov at the official level. That has to be seen as a covert criticism of the Azerbaijani government’s action on rapprochement with Russians and Kadyrov’s Chechnya. A couple of weeks later, Aslan Mashadov’s family asked for political asylum in Finland, claiming that they do not feel safe in Azerbaijan (Chechnya Weekly, May 11, 2006). It cannot be excluded that the Azerbaijani government, under pressure from the Russian authorities, asked Maskhadov’s family to leave.
The Azerbaijani government will continue to help Russia with Chechen problems, whether it is the extradition of terrorists and guerrillas or an official visit by Ramzan Kadyrov. As for Chechen refugees, they will continue to be “small change” in Russian-Azerbaijani relations. It is hard to predict how they will behave under these conditions, but it is obvious that they will try to leave Muslim “brother” republics and emigrate to other countries where their rights will be fully respected.