Akhmed Zakayev, head of the Chechen government in exile, returned to London on September 22 following his brief detention in Poland on an international arrest warrant requested by Russia. Zakayev had been in Poland to address the World Chechen Congress, which was meeting to develop a plan for ending the violence in the Russian republic and secure its “de-occupation.” He says he will return to Poland when necessary to participate in an extradition hearing.
Zakayev spoke with RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Natalya Golitsyna about his experience in Poland and about the status of the Chechen independence movement.RFE/RL: You have said you were a victim of the political games of Poland and Russia. What do you mean by that?
I mean that the Polish leadership and the Polish prosecutors had every reason to ignore the request that Russia sent to Poland because I had already been detained twice under that request. The first time was in Copenhagen [in 2002], and in Britain there was already a court process that lasted nearly a year on the basis of this very same request.
So Poland, as a member of the European Union, had every right to ignore this from a legal point of view. But in this matter, I think, political matters trumped the legal and rights aspects. That is why, in order to please Russia, they initiated an extradition procedure. In this sense, undoubtedly, I think that I became a victim because the congress and the efforts we were making in Copenhagen were nearly ruined, although we’d discussed all this with the Polish leadership and Polish politicians five or six months ago. And it was on the basis of agreement with them that the congress was arranged in Poland.
Pro-Kremlin activists protest the decision by a Polish court to free Zakayev in front of the Polish Embassy in Moscow.
At the last moment, when Russia learned that I would participate, there was pressure on Poland and these papers were sent in order to disrupt the congress. Unfortunately, Poland helped them in this.RFE/RL: Some people think that the idea of Chechen independence is no longer realistic. They say that since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, all Chechen groups – particularly separatist groups – are considered terrorists in the West.
I absolutely do not agree with that. Quite the opposite. There have been strong changes in international politics regarding Chechnya and Chechen subjects. The first is the recognition of Kosovo by the United States and the European Union. The second is Russia’s recognition of [the breakaway Georgian regions of] Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The third was the decision of the international tribunal in The Hague that Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia did not violate international law.
All three of these developments in international politics indicate that Chechnya and the Chechen question remain on the agenda.
As far as the claim that Chechens themselves are tired and have given up on the idea of independence goes, it has nothing to do with reality. Chechnya is a concentration camp, and usually people in concentration camps try to survive. They don’t go around making political demands. A good example is the Holocaust. No one then was talking about the creation of a state of Israel. They were trying to survive, and they did.
And that is what is happening in Chechnya now – the people are just trying to survive. Chechens will never give up because the idea of Chechen independence and freedom is not something [former Chechen President Djokhar] Dudayev or [former Chechen President Aslan] Maskhadov or Zakayev invented. It is a national idea that exists and will be supported until it becomes reality.
That is why I look at the future of Chechnya now with greater optimism than 10 or 15 years ago. And what is most important – in Russia itself there is the understanding that the current situation in Chechnya has to be changed. What is going on in Chechnya right now is costing Russia a lot, and this situation is all held together by one person, by the personal ambitions of [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin. Because a person who entered the political scene through Chechen blood, through the Chechen war, cannot admit that this was a mistake and that it is necessary to try something else.
This is the only reason that the conflict is continuing, and it will continue as long as Putin maintains a political position in Russia. That may be another 12 years….But for the national liberation movement, 10 or 12 years is not enough time to suppress or halt the movement itself.
RFE/RL: Does the idea of independence have broad support in Chechnya itself?
Zakayev speaks at the World Chechen Congress on September 18.
The fact that people in Chechnya today do not speak about independence is a sign of the times. I remember some examples. After the 1944 deportation and after the Chechens returned in 1956-57, during this period until 1990, the Chechens lived as if nothing had happened, as if everything was forgotten. But the slightest spark, which happened in the 1990s when there was the coup attempt [against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev] and such waves passed through Russia, it was precisely the 1944 deportation that became the detonator for everything that came later.
And compared to that, what has happened in the last 10 years…. Even old people who lived through both experiences say that the deportation was nothing compared to what is happening now. It is a land mine planted in Chechen society. And sooner or later, it will explode. But I am categorically against any revolutions. I don’t think the Chechen people can survive yet another revolution. It would be a national tragedy. That is why we must find a transition from the current regime to a normally formed power structure chosen by the Chechen people.RFE/RL: Last summer you were expected to hold talks with the authorities in Chechnya, with the authorities in Russia. What has happened in the last year that made these good intentions collapse?
The problem was that they demonstrated their insincerity. What they stated publicly and what really happened were two different things. They declared good will and a desire for me to return home. But when we ran up against concrete questions that had to be settled, everything came to a halt.
The first matter was the people being held in Russian camps. That is, about 25,000 people. The second matter was the return of Maskhadov’s body. The third was the matter of not persecuting the relatives of Chechen fighters. Without settling these questions, it is not possible to discuss the consolidation of Chechen society. And without consolidating society, it is impossible to work out a unified political program that could be the basis for a lasting peace.
Everything ended on these formulas, because these three questions were within the competence of Moscow and Chechnya. But Moscow was not ready to settle these questions. And that’s where it ended.RFE/RL: Those were your demands. What were you willing to concede to make such a dialogue happen?
We said from the beginning that Chechens have never set themselves the goal of defeating Russia. The matter of independence was never an end in itself for Chechens. Chechen independence is a guarantee of security. At one point, Putin said that the status of Chechnya is not important for Russia. On the basis of these two political components, we could have found settlement that would have been absolutely acceptable for Russia and for Chechnya, that would have satisfied everyone and facilitated a lasting peace.
There is the peace agreement signed by Maskhadov and in that agreement there is a project for another agreement where the Chechen side declared a single defensive space, a single economic and customs space. All these questions were resolvable. I am confident that even now there are no irresolvable issues in relations between Russia and Chechnya.