Russia’s efforts to increase its bargaining power in a dispute with Qatar over two Russian intelligence officers imprisoned in the Persian Gulf Sheikhdom seem to have turned into a clumsy farce. On February 28, Russian police arrested two Olympic athletes from Qatar at Moscow’s Sheremetevo airport. They clearly intended to use the athletes as bargaining chips to win freedom for the two imprisoned Russians. But it soon turned out that at least one and possibly both of the two athletes held, not Qatari, but Belarusan citizenship. According to a March 2 article in Kommersant, the Russian authorities have now released Aleksandr Dubrovsky, trainer for the sheikhdom’s Olympic wrestling team. Dubrovsky, who has been a resident of Qatar for the last decade while remaining a citizen of Belarus, has already returned to the sheikhdom. Team member Ibad Akhmedov, also arrested on February 28, is said to have dual citizenship in both Qatar and Belarus.
When Country A catches intelligence agents from Country B conducting illegal missions on Country A’s soil, usually it is Country A that publicizes the event. But on February 26 it was not Qatar but Russia that went public over the former government’s arrest of three Russians accused of assassinating Zelimkhan Yandarbiev (see Chechnya Weekly, February 18).
According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, whose account the Qatar authorities did not deny in this respect, the arrests took place on the night of February 18 to 19–five days after Yandarbiev’s death. Among many questions which remain unanswered is why Russia failed to evacuate its operatives immediately after they had carried out their mission, if indeed it was they who were responsible for the killing.
One of the three Russians has already been released, and as of February 26 was back at the Russian embassy in Qatar. The Russian Foreign Ministry also said that one of the three was in Qatar on a diplomatic passport; apparently this is the one who was freed from detention. All three were described by the foreign ministry as having been “at the Russian embassy on a work related trip.” Strikingly, the ministry openly acknowledged that all three work for Russia’s “special services;” it said that their work in Qatar was of an “informational and analytical character, connected with countering international terrorism.”
From the timing of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s statement, it seems likely that it was triggered by Qatar’s decision on February 25 to file formal murder charges against the two Russians arrested six days earlier. The statement by Russia’s acting foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, was unusually vigorous by diplomatic standards, calling the arrest of the three intelligence operatives a “provocation.” Ivanov denied that the Russian government had had anything to do with Yandarbiev’s murder, accused the Qatar authorities of violating “the elementary norms of international relations” by not having immediately informed the Russian embassy of the arrests, and demanded that Qatar “immediately release the illegally detained Russian citizens and allow them to return without hindrance to their homeland.” He reiterated Moscow’s oft-repeated complaint that Qatar had failed to hand Yandarbiev over to Russian custody despite repeated requests. Qatar’s ambassador in Moscow was repeatedly summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry, according to a February 26 article on the Newsru.com website.
On February 27 the pro-Kremlin website Strana.ru published an interview with Sergei Vodolagin, a Moscow specialist on international law, in which he charged that Yandarbiev had been present in Qatar as a “state guest” and that the sheikhdom is “assisting the activities of the Chechen separatists.” The implication, clearly intended, is that Qatar is directly involved in terrorism.
For some analysts, the episode ended doubts as to who killed Yandarbiev. The Associated Press reported on February 26 that Pavel Felgenhauer, the independent Russian commentator on military affairs, said “I believe it was Russians who killed him–he was a symbolic figure. Nobody else needed him.”
Essentially agreeing with Felgenhauer, Sanobar Shermatova wrote in Moskovskie novosti on February 27 that Yandarbiev had in recent years distanced himself from his old allies. His presence in Qatar, in her view, was awkward for the sheikhdom itself, which had responded with interest to a Russian delegation’s visit in December. The Russian parliamentarians and businessmen had suggested possibilities for closer economic ties; but the Yandarbiev issue was a continuing obstacle to normal relations. His “departure would be advantageous to both sides.”
On the other hand, Qatar’s vigorous prosecution of the Chechen extremist’s alleged killers has now made relations even worse. Why the sheikhdom did not simply close its eyes to the Yandarbiev assassination has not yet been fully explained by anyone.
Moscow’s behavior is easier to understand. Shermatova depicted it as a sign of a new aggressiveness, predicting that “in the near future attempts will be made to nullify the influence of other Chechen separatist leaders and centers located abroad.” The countries hosting them are now likely to find these guests more burdensome.
If Shermatova is right, her prediction is especially worrying because the Kremlin has shown no willingness to distinguish between extremists such as Yandarbiev and moderate Chechen separatists who seek peace negotiations. She linked the Qatar event to another, less-noticed one: The appointment of Doku Zavgaev, the last Soviet-era ruler of Chechnya, as a deputy minister of foreign relations under Ivanov. As Putin nears his expected landslide reelection, his policies on Chechnya seem to be growing not less hardline but more so.