The London-based prime minister of the separatist Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (ChRI), Akhmed Zakaev, has denied that comments he recently made which were widely interpreted as praise for Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov are part of an attempt to reach an accommodation with the pro-Moscow Chechen leader. Kavkazky Uzel on May 18 quoted Zakaev as saying in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that the situation in Chechnya today is cardinally different from that of 2000-2003, “when the civilian population of Chechnya was subjected to cruel and severe zachistki, torture and violence,” that rebel forces “are not fighting against Ramzan Kadyrov; they are fighting against the occupation forces,” and that while Chechnya is not independent, its “decolonization” is a “fait accompli.” Zakaev was also quoted as saying that rebel forces are freer to carry out attacks on federal forces because police loyal to Kadyrov prevent federal forces from punishing the civilian population for such attacks (Chechnya Weekly, May 22).
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported on May 23 that Zakaev had made his comments about Kadyrov in an interview with RFE/RL in November 2007 and repeated some of them at a conference in London on May 14 organized by the Royal United Services Institute. Yet according to RFE/RL, Zakaev gave an interview to RFE/RL’s North Caucasus Service on May 20 in which he “implicitly” branded Kadyrov a “criminal” for his repeated calls to wipe out the remaining resistance forces and to punish civilians who provide them with material aid. Zakaev also said that the Russian leadership still views Kadyrov as a rebel and “will kill him treacherously at the first opportunity,” RFE/RL reported. According to RFE/RL, Zakaev made a similar prediction at the May 14 conference in London, saying he is convinced “a magnificent funeral” is being prepared for Kadyrov and that Beslan Gantamirov, the former Chechen Deputy Prime Minister and Grozny mayor, is slated to succeed Kadyrov.
Newsru.com, citing Ekho Moskvy radio, had quoted Zakaev as saying that “we are preparing several serious documents aimed at averting clashes between the Chechen partisans and the Chechen police” (Chechnya Weekly, May 22). Yet RFE/RL quoted Zakaev in his May 20 interview as categorically denying speculation that some kind of draft written agreement exists between him and the pro-Moscow Chechen leadership. RFE/RL also quoted him as denying that the recent visit to Grozny by renowned surgeon Khassan Baiev was undertaken at his behest. RFE/RL also reported that Zakaev, asked whether he would under any circumstances seek an accommodation with the pro-Moscow Chechen leadership, dismissed as impermissible “any betrayal of the path we have followed over the past 10-15 years,” adding that for him to return to Chechnya tomorrow would constitute such a betrayal. Zakaev added, however, that he sees it as his duty to seek any possible political settlement of the Chechen conflict, and that the government and parliament in exile are working to that end.
Zakaev’s denials notwithstanding, some observers regard Zakaev’s perceived positive “signals” to Kadyrov as significant. Sergei Markedonov, head of the Inter-Ethnic Relations Department at the Institute for Political and Military Analysis, said in a piece posted by the Politcom.ru website on May 26 that with the virtual elimination of internal opposition in Chechnya, a process of “ethno-national consolidation around the figure of Ramzan Kadyrov” has begun.
“The Kadyrov phenomenon is becoming a subject of serious study within the Ichkerian ‘abroad’—that is, among representatives of the separatist movement who were involved in armed opposition to the Russian state in 1994-1996 and in 1999-2001,” Markedonov wrote. “Thus the London ‘dweller’ [Zakaev] under certain conditions is prepared to recognize the legitimacy of the new political order in the republic. For him, Kadyrov is a politician protecting the Chechen ethno-national cause. In his time, Ramzan Kadyrov, criticizing the member of the team of President Alu Alkhanov, German Vok, repeatedly pointed to the fact that his first and last names had been changed, emphasizing that this is not ‘in the Chechen manner’. Thus, loyalty to ethnos means much more for both Kadyrov and Zakaev than any other loyalty. And this unites them.” Markedonov added that Kadyrov and Zakaev may also “come together in an aversion to radical Islam.”
Markedonov wrote that while none of this means that the Kadyrov regime is prepared to accept overtures from Zakaev and his allies, and that the latter are unlikely to return to Chechnya anytime soon, signals of this kind will appear from time to time because part of the separatist political elite living abroad sees “potential allies” in “the pro-Russian power and administrative structures of the Chechen Republic.”
Markedonov concluded: “With Russia’s help, the Islamists and simply inconvenient rivals in the struggle for power (Maskhadov, Basaev, Sadulaev) have been crushed and ethno-nationalist and ‘traditional’ trends have been strengthened. With the help of financial infusions from Moscow, the [Chechen] economy has been ‘stabilized’ (especially in comparison to the war periods), and the social sector has been repaired (again, compared to the 1990s). Having eliminated any checks and balances to Kadyrov Jr., Moscow itself has placed all power in one pair of hands.”
Meanwhile, Magomed Khambiev, the former ChRI Defense Minister and general of the ChRI armed forces who is now a deputy in Chechnya’s parliament, called on his former comrades living abroad to return to the republic and disband the rebel armed groups, Kavkazky Uzel reported on May 29. “Our president is a Chechen, the representatives of all branches of power are Chechens, members of the law-enforcement organs are also Chechens,” the website quoted him as saying. “We don’t realize it, but it is possibly today that we have received the very independence that was fought for all those years. And when those who have not yet returned [to Chechnya] understand this, realize that it is the embodiment of their ideals, they will return home and become brothers-in-arms of the president.”
According to Kavkazky Uzel, Khambiev said that the authorities in Chechnya are ready for negotiations with the remaining rebels. “We must help them in this, since we are responsible for their fate, for the future of their families. You, as people who have influence on these young people, and we, who are ready for any form of negotiations. We want you to return. And I appeal to you yourselves to return and to assist in the return of those who remain on the other side of the barricades. I ask you to really look at what we have today, soberly assess the situation in the republic, with whom and with what you agree or do not agree, and to articulate it. In order to listen to you, we have a president, a parliament, a people.”
Kavkazky Uzel reported that some observers in Chechnya view Khambiev’s comments as a response to Zakaev. “Zakaev, located in London, recently gave an unambiguous signal of readiness to enter into a dialogue with the functioning authorities in the republic,” the website quoted an anonymous Chechen political analyst as saying. “Of course, the leadership of the republic, through the mouth of the former Defense Minister of Ichkeria, let it be known that is not averse to beginning contacts. Time will tell what will come from this.”
Still, some Chechens said they thought Khambiev’s comments would have no influence on those currently carrying on the armed struggle against federal forces and the republican authorities. “Khambiev—who, like Zakaev, hid abroad—never enjoyed particular authority among those who really fought in both the first and second military campaigns in the republic,” a former ChRI parliamentary deputy told the website on condition of anonymity. “Gelaev, Basaev and Maskhadov himself were genuinely significant figures in the resistance. Khambiev couldn’t be called anything other than an ‘operatic general’, and Zakaev is an artist who has no notion of military affairs. I don’t think that those who are today subordinated to Dokka Umarov and are in the mountains will rush in multitudes to surrender following Khambiev’s appeal. In their circles, he is seen as nothing but a traitor who didn’t have enough courage to die for his ideals.”