Who’s Who in the Moscow Chechen Community

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 9 Issue: 26

With everything that is happening in Chechnya today, the affairs of Chechen communities outside of their homeland are not receiving much notice. Moscow alone, for instance, was home to up to 20,000 Chechens, according to the 2002 census, and informal data puts this number at over a hundred thousand people.

The Chechen community in Moscow grew over several decades, and includes several distinct segments. Initially, during the post-deportation period of the fifties and sixties, its members came from the ranks of the Communist Party and Soviet apparatchiks. In their footsteps followed the students of Russia’s top universities, who became the core of the future Chechen intelligentsia in the sixties and the seventies. The latter group includes such notable names as the economics professor Ruslan Khasbulatov, professor of medicine Hassan Musaitov, physics professor Mahmoud Israilov, philosophy professor Salman Vatsanaev, classical and folk dancer Mahmoud Essambaev, opera singer Movsar Mintsaev and many others who preferred to keep quiet about their ethnic origins in the interests of career advancement.

During the late seventies and early eighties, thousands of Chechens left Chechnya to resettle in other parts of the Soviet Union in search of jobs and better income, and many of these economic migrants settled in Moscow.

However, regardless of their numbers and location, the Chechens’ distaste for Soviet rule stemming from their political past, and especially the mass deportation that began in 1944 and lasted until 1957, led to widely felt social alienation and the stereotype of “Chechen hatred” toward the Soviet state, which pushed the Chechen community in Moscow outside of the common social framework. That is, the Chechen community led an insulated life governed by its own laws and within its own circles, fiercely protecting its customs, traditions and adats (local laws that more often than not contradicted sharia) from any outside interference. This led the government to believe in the myth of the tightly knit structures of Chechen organized crime. In its extreme naiveté, the government assumed that the community protecting its own people from police investigations must necessarily be a fully grown and organized mafia.

Incidentally, the first person to use this term to describe Chechens was a then-police colonel and an ethnic Chechen Aslanbek Aslakhanov in an interview with the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda in the mid-eighties. The label stuck, and was later used to characterize other ethnicity based organized crime groups in Moscow. At different times, the Chechen criminal circles were headed by Khozh-Ali Nukhaev, Ruslan Atlangiriev, Khoza Suleimanov and others who appeared regularly in Moscow police blotters.

The next-to-last wave of the Chechen influx into Moscow brought those who left Chechnya for political reasons—the old Communist bosses who failed to adjust to post-USSR conditions, were hostile to the pursuit of Chechen independence and counted on Moscow’s loyalty as well as on their eventual return to their old positions of power in Chechnya. This group was led by the long-time Communist functionary Dokka Zavgaev, who managed to hold on to power through several positions on the Russian President’s staff and tried to help his supporters by providing cover and coordination. His team included Salambek Hajjiev, Said-Hassan Nunuev, Abdullah Bugaev and many others.

During the same period Moscow became home to the gradually emerging Chechen business elite such as Abdul-Malik Batukaev, Abubakar Arsamakov, Ziah Bazhaev, Malik Saidullaev, Umar Jabrailov, Alkhazur Abdulkadyrov and dozens of other influential men who managed to not only stand on their own two feet in a hostile environment, but achieve high standing and independence in the Russian society as well.

The final group of Chechen migrants fleeing to Moscow consisted of the refugees escaping the war of 1994–1996 and the second campaign launched in 1999. Members of that group fell hostage to the political situation that existed in Russia at the time; while very few of them gained legal status, they did their best to earn a living for themselves and their extended family members in Chechnya. Notably, following the official policy of the Moscow government, no one dared to extend legal registration status to Chechens. Many in this subgroup of the Chechen diaspora are very critical of Russia’s policies toward Chechnya, and supporters of radical Islamist views on Chechen-Russian relations are most commonly found in this group as well.

Due to this great diversity, every attempt to unite the entire Chechen community under one umbrella undertaken by some individuals has always run into the majority of one subgroup or the other blocking the way. The cultural center (managed for a long time by Abuyazid Apaev) played a purely symbolic role: no one ever believed in Apaev’s leadership, and his functions were limited to issuing statements on occasions when Chechens were treated unlawfully.

Therefore, any statements made “on behalf of Moscow’s Chechen community” should be interpreted as the voice of a single group that provides financial backing for a certain cultural center or foundation. For instance, Apaev’s cultural center is funded by Abdul-Malik Batukaev, while the development foundation is backed by Ziah Bazhaev, etc.

One segment of the well-established Chechen community in Moscow serves as a vehicle for Moscow’s policies in Chechnya. For instance, after the second Chechen war was launched, Dokka Zavgaev was recalled from his ambassadorial post in Tanzania and installed at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he became responsible for organizing foreign trips of the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov as well as issuing guarantees on behalf of the Russian government and liaising with foreign businessmen and cultural leaders who in essence serve as pawns of Kremlin’s propaganda campaign claiming that the war is over, that Chechnya is peaceful and that everything ought to be forgotten.

The first attempts to put pressure on the Chechen businessmen under the cover of the FSB [Federal Security Service] took place in 2000 when Adam Deniev’s brother Gazi-Magomed was assassinated in the office of Rosnobank director Salikh Suleimanov (an ethnic Chechen) during a multi-million dollar extortion attempt. At the time of the assassination, Moscow had not yet finalized the selection of its proxy leader in Chechnya, and the eccentric Adam Deniev, who deftly and very quickly changed his political persona from a founder of the Islamic revival party to a Sufi sheikh, was one of the candidates under consideration (https://www.konflikt.ru/index.php?top=1&status=show1news&news_id=1966&page=1&searchword=).

Shortly thereafter, during the famous meeting of the Chechen businessmen with Vladimir Putin in 2002, the president, in no uncertain terms, asked all Chechen businessmen with successful operations in Russia to invest into Chechnya’s economy (no one was willing to volunteer for the job.) Following the meeting, Ramzan Kadyrov was very critical of the Chechen businessmen in the mass media, accusing them of failing to uphold the commitments to invest in Chechnya they made to President Putin. When Mussa Bazhaev finally expressed his “wishes” to invest $50 million into Chechnya’s social infrastructure, Kadyrov responded by stating that no one would put any obstacles in Bazhayev’s path and that the Chechen leadership would only encourage his plans (https://www.ramzan-kadyrov.ru/press.php?releases&press_id=267&month=07&year=2006).

The president of Moscow Industrial Bank Abubakar Arsamakov was subjected to physical pressure (https://www.novayagazeta.ru/data/2006/72/03.html) when his younger brother Khamzat was assaulted (presumably by Sulim Yamadaev’s people) and his two older brothers Yunus and Yusup were abducted in Chechnya with the aim either of forcing Arsamakov out of the zone of their interests or obtaining a multi-million dollar “loan” in exchange for not meddling in his business (https://www.newsru.com/russia/29apr2008/badrudi.html).

Similar reasons were likely at play during the mysterious disappearance of the crime boss Ruslan Atlangiriev (https://www.novayagazeta.spb.ru/forum/index.php?club=2008275&msid=1266) known for his contacts in high places, including the FSB. While many explanations may be offered, perhaps his story has to do with subordinating all prominent Chechens to the rule of Ramzan Kadyrov.

Faced with such undisguised pressure, many in the Chechen business community may be tempted to relocate their business interests away from the Kremlin and closer to the United Arab Emirates. Those who cannot relocate and are unwilling to operate under the official control of Ramzan Kadyrov are trying to make some investments in Chechnya. However, these funds tend to be earmarked solely for social projects like schools, hospitals and mosques because the top Chechen businessmen of Moscow are in no rush to build factories or open businesses in Chechnya after nine years of war. Most businessmen investing in social support facilities focus on their ancestral villages, thus sending a clear message that their contributions are made for the benefit of their relatives and compatriots and not Ramzan Kadyrov’s pleasure.

Thus official Grozny and Moscow are losing the battle to engage Moscow’s Chechen community in close cooperation with Ramzan Kadyrov. Moscow-based Chechens are still on the fence, biding their time to get a clearer picture of Chechnya in the post-Kadyrov period; they do not consider Chechnya stable enough for their own investments. That is, in contrast with Moscow’s claims, the war for Chechen minds is still far from over, and apart from the radicals and the supporters of independence, there also exists a large pro-Russia Chechen community that at present is keeping its options open.