Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 18

This week’s release of Vitaly Kozmenko, a 72-year-old Muscovite who was held hostage in Chechnya for sixteen months, was made possible by the mediation of Nadyr Khachilaev, head of the Union of Muslims of Russia. Khachilaev’s role in freeing Kozmenko is surprising, given that Khachilaev, who is also a member of the State Duma, has been accused by Russia’s prosecutor general of organizing an attempted coup last May in Dagestan. Khachilaev subsequently fled to Chechnya to evade Russian law enforcement authorities.

Nadyr Khachilaev is one of the leading mafia bosses in the North Caucasus. His influence there is such that he was able to become the chairman of the Union of Muslims of Russia, the largest Muslim political organization in Russia, and to get elected to the State Duma as a deputy representing Dagestan. Khachilaev has already demonstrated to Moscow his political influence in the region several times. In 1996, he acted as an intermediary in the negotiations between then Security Council Secretary Aleksandr Lebed and Aslan Maskhadov, now Chechnya’s president, who in 1996 was the Chechen army’s chief of staff. Those negotiations resulted in the Khasavyurt agreements, which ended Russia’s military actions in Chechnya. Later, Khachilaev participated in freeing several hostages who were being held in Chechnya.

Relations between Khachilaev and Moscow went sour only in May, when, in response to an attempt by Dagestani police to stop a car filled with his bodyguards, Khachilaev ordered his fighters to seize the government offices in Makhachkala, Dagestan’s capital. Moscow decided to begin criminal proceedings against him only in September, and Khachilaev, while losing his parliamentary immunity from prosecution, was able to flee to Chechnya. Khachilaev’s participation in this week’s release of hostage Vitaly Kozmenko should be seen as Khachilaev’s attempt to re-enter to Russian politics. It is politicians such as Khachilaev–that is, people who are closely connected to the criminal world–who have real influence today in the North Caucasus. The Kremlin will probably have to deal with that fact.