Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 3 Issue: 33

During the hostage crisis of October 23-26, and in its immediate aftermath, spokesmen for President Putin and for the Russian power ministries repeatedly emphasized that talks are no longer possible with Aslan Maskhadov or with his chief negotiator, Akhmed Zakaev. On October 30, the Russian authorities sent a formal extradition request to Denmark asking that Zakaev–who had come to Copenhagen for a two-day Chechen conference attended by some 100 separatists, human rights activists and lawmakers–be placed under arrest and then sent to Russia (Moscow Times, October 31). On November 1, however, Danish Justice Minister Lene Espersen rejected the extradition request, stating that Moscow had failed to provide proof of its accusation that Zakaev is a terrorist (Agence France Presse, November 1).

On October 31, Russian presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky declared at a news conference that Moscow was ruling out any future talks with Maskhadov or his representatives. “Maskhadov can no longer be considered a legitimate representative of this resistance,” Yastrzhembsky emphasized. “From the Chechen underground,” he added, “there is no one we are ready to talk to.”

On the subject of Akhmed Zakaev, Yastrzhembsky observed: “Zakaev came to Moscow [in 2001], and we guaranteed his safety to begin these contacts, because we cannot call them talks.” He made it clear, however, that Zakaev could not in the future serve as a partner in negotiations (Reuters, October 31).

Also on October 31, Yastrzhembsky cited several cell phone conversations allegedly made by Movsar Baraev, the leader of the hostage-takers, in which he commented that Maskhadov was well informed about the terrorist actions. Baraev was also reported by Yastrzhembsky to have said: “I act with Shamil’s [that is, Basaev’s] consent. If Shamil works under him, then [Maskhadov] must be informed” (RIA Novosti, October 31). The seizure of the hostages, Yastrzhembsky stressed, represented “a very powerful blow” at the remnants of Maskhadov’s prestige abroad (, November 1).

The following day, however, Shamil Basaev issued a statement through the separatist website of Kavkaz Center, in which he took upon himself complete responsibility for the hostage seizure in Moscow (, November 1). “Basaev,” Yastrzhembsky retorted contemptuously, “is trying to shield Maskhadov, to save him for future political games” (, November 1).

There was initially some evidence that Russia’s aggressive media blitz and vigorous diplomatic effort was having some effect in the West. On October 30, the Los Angeles Times reported from Moscow that a “senior U.S. official” there had termed Maskhadov “damaged goods,” with links to terrorism. The senior official opined that, in the future, Maskhadov should be excluded from any peace talks.

One Russian journalist, Valery Vyzhutovich of Moskovskie Novosti, who carefully looked into the Russian leadership’s case against Maskhadov, found it woefully weak. “There is no direct proof,” he concluded, “that proves Maskhadov culpable of having prepared a terrorist assault on Moscow. Not a single court00not even our ‘most humane and most just’ courts–would accept such a case” (Moskovskie Novosti, October 29).

The record, moreover, showed that Maskhadov and Zakaev had decisively distanced themselves from the terrorists before the Russian assault on the theater had taken place. Thus (a website associated with NTV) reported that at 00:53 on October 26, Zakaev, speaking on behalf of Maskhadov, had pleaded with the terrorists to come to their senses and had “warned them against taking hasty steps” (, October 27).

Anna Politkovskaya, the award-winning Russian war correspondent, who negotiated with Movsar Baraev and others in the besieged theater building, has reported that the terrorists told her explicitly that they did not consider themselves to be in subordination to Maskhadov. “We do not care about Maskhadov and his envoys,” they said. “They are national traitors, they are having a good time in Europe while we are dying” (Agence France Presse, October 29).

The arrest of Akhmed Zakaev by the Danish authorities and his threatened extradition to Russia came under sharp criticism from Politkovskaya and other commentators both in Russia and in the West. “The arrest of Aslan Maskhadov’s envoy in Denmark,” she warned, “may put an end to the process of negotiation in Chechnya.” After Zakaev, she cautioned, Russia will find itself talking to “the generation of the ‘sons'” who have told her: “To hell with Maskhadov! We will fight our own war!” (Novaya Gazeta, October 31, translation by WPS Monitoring). The well-known British actress Vanessa Redgrave was another who exerted herself to prevent Zakaev’s extradition (Izvestia, November 1).

And on October 30, the co-chairs of the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Alexander M. Haig Jr. and Max M. Kampelman, plus the committee’s executive director, Glen E. Howard, wrote to the Danish ambassador in Washington, underlining: “We know Mr. Zakaev and have worked with him. His dedicated espousal of a peaceful resolution to the Chechen conflict has made him a crucial interlocutor in efforts to bring an end to the war…. Mr. Zakaev’s extradition would seriously undermine those crucial endeavors” (ACPC, October 30).

To sum up, one week after Russia’s costly retaking of a Moscow theater, its all-out media and diplomatic offensive aimed at irrevocably scuttling the Chechen peace process appears to have stalled.