In a stunning diplomatic and political stroke, parliamentary members from Germany’s ruling party last week gave Akhmed Zakaev a high visibility platform for presenting the views of the underground Maskhadov government at a semi-official forum in Berlin. The Chechen diplomat not only met with members of all the parties in the German federal legislature–but even more important set a precedent for traveling about western Europe as a free man rather than as a fugitive terrorist. A January 29 analysis in Gazeta.ru rightly concluded that “the plans of the Russian Procuracy to pursue him [Zakaev] all over the world have definitively been wrecked.”
According to a January 29 report on the radio station Ekho Moskvy, Zakaev traveled to Germany on documents issued to him by the British government after its decision to declare him a political asylee. The fact that he is still formally on Interpol’s list of international fugitives clearly did not worry him; as the invited guest of two German legislators, he knew that there was no chance of his being arrested.
Zakaev’s hosts were Bundestag member Gert Weisskirchen, speaker for foreign relations of Germany’s ruling Social Democratic Party, and Markus Meckel, a former minister of foreign relations. Their status as high ranking German legislators, well connected politically but not actually members of the current Social Democratic cabinet, enabled them to speak more candidly than the executive branch could have. In effect, they signaled the German elite’s profound discontent with Russia’s current policies in Chechnya without trespassing on the protocols of formal diplomacy.
In an interview with correspondent Dmitry Suslov of Nezavisimaya gazeta published on January 30, Meckel said that his and his colleague’s purpose was “not only to talk about the prospects for a peace settlement in Chechnya, but to take concrete steps in that direction.” (Note: The English version of Meckel’s words is Chechnya Weekly’s translation of the Russian text published in Nezavisimaya gazeta, which itself is presumably a translation from German.) He stressed that Germany’s executive branch (headed by his fellow Social Democrat, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder) “had nothing to do with Zakaev’s visit. The government did not invite him, and its representatives are not meeting with him.”
Meckel went on to speak of the Kremlin’s policies in terms unusually strong and candid by the standards of the European Union. “We consider,” he said, “that President Vladimir Putin and his government are conducting an incorrect policy with regard to Chechnya. We do not recognize the presidential elections which took place in Chechnya, we consider that they were manipulated. We do not believe that Akhmad Kadyrov is capable of bringing a peaceful solution to Chechnya. Therefore we consider it extremely important to bring people from President Maskhadov’s circle into negotiations about Chechnya.”
After representatives of the various parties in the German parliament met with Zakaev, the Bundestag held a special session devoted specifically to Chechnya. The deputies passed a resolution appealing to Chancellor Schroeder to press Russia to end the war.
Vladimir Putin’s aide, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, reacted with indignation to the Zakaev trip, and especially to the German authorities’ refusal to arrest and extradite Zakaev as requested by the Russian office of Interpol. He asked rhetorically, “To what extent are certain states which belong to this police organization respecting their obligations?” According to Interfax, he predicted that if those states “continue to act in this way, then the existence of Interpol will be in doubt.”
But a source at the German embassy in Moscow told Nezavisimaya gazeta that Zakaev could not be handed over to Russia, because the British decision to recognize him as a political refugee is authoritative for all the countries of the EU.
Meckel said that “in my opinion Zakaev should not only meet with us German politicians, but should travel all over Europe and conduct negotiations with the politicians of many countries in the European Union. In their turn, these politicians should appeal to Russia and try to have an impact on her leaders. I am absolutely convinced that it is in the interests of Russia herself to solve the Chechen problem by political means rather than by force.”
Zakaev himself told Nezavisimaya gazeta that he had cleared every element of his trip to Germany with the man whose government he represents, Aslan Maskhadov.