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Chechnya: Pro-Moscow Government Gets Official Welcome In Saudi Arabia

Akhmed-hadjii Kadyrov, the pro-Moscow president of Chechnya, received an official welcome in Riyadh during a visit last week to Saudi Arabia. The trip has served to boost Kadyrov's standing in the Muslim world and has likely pleased the Kremlin as well. In addition to holding talks on building up Chechnya's oil sector and hosting an Islamic conference in Moscow, Kadyrov reportedly secured a pledge from Riyadh to sever a suspected financial link between Saudi charitable groups and rebel fighters in Chechnya.

Prague, 21 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Following a four-day trip to Saudi Arabia, Chechen President Akhmed-hadjii Kadyrov announced that Saudi officials had offered assurances that private charitable funds donated to Chechnya would be directed at reconstruction efforts -- and not at aiding separatist fighters.

Reuters cited Kadyrov as telling reporters: "All the [Saudi] funds that worked independently have been brought under state control. People that want to help Chechnya, all their money will be under control."

Saudi charities and donations have come under increasing scrutiny since the 11 September attacks on the United States and are suspected of financing extremist groups in places throughout the world, including Chechnya.

Kadyrov's visit will substantiate accusations by Islamic radicals that the Saudi royal family "is working against Islam and Muslims, thus enhancing Al-Qaeda's capabilities inside the country."
It remains unclear if the Saudi pledge was formally made or how it may be enforced. But the announcement nonetheless sounded a triumphant end note to Kadyrov's official visit from 15-18 January in the Saudi kingdom, during which he met with Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz and held talks with ministers and businessmen.

Aleksei Malashenko, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, says that on the surface, the Saudi visit was an undeniable success for Kadyrov -- who is seen by many in Russia, Chechnya, and the West as little more than a Kremlin puppet since winning a landslide victory in a widely criticized election last year.

"There is no doubt that Kadyrov will try to magnify the importance of his visit, which was a positive step for him. To begin with, he was invited and de facto recognized. This is something he's going to try to profit from as much as possible. But without a doubt, this trip is a success for him," Malashenko said.

Murad Batal al-Shishani is a Jordanian-born Chechnya analyst currently living in Saudi Arabia. He says if nothing else, Kadyrov's trip was a triumph simply because he was officially welcomed in Riyadh as the president of Chechnya. Saudi leaders hold considerable authority in the Muslim world, and their recognition of Kadyrov will go far in solidifying his legitimacy elsewhere.

Al-Shishani says Kadyrov's visit also shows that Russia has been successful in convincing Saudi authorities that its ongoing conflict in Chechnya is battling terrorism, and not separatism. Saudi Arabia, like many Arab countries, has been eager to publicly distance itself from alleged ties to terrorism.

Extending a warm welcome to Kadyrov, says al-Shishani, was one way for Saudi leaders to align themselves with the antiterrorist camp. But the Saudi leadership is one thing, and the Saudi public quite another. Al-Shishani says many ordinary Saudis continue to sympathize with Chechen fighters: "Ordinary people do not call [Chechen fighters] terrorists, but the government is gradually adopting this new rhetoric of calling the Chechen resistance terrorists. Ordinary Arabs think that what happened to the Chechens is a great tragedy, and they would like to support them, but the government is beginning to call them terrorists and is saying it is illegal to support them financially."

Kadyrov and Crown Prince Abdullah reportedly also discussed Saudi-Russian relations and Russia's stated desire for closer relations with the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

While such steps may be seen as a sign of improving ties between Russia and Saudi Arabia, Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow Center says they do not dramatically alter ties between the two countries. He adds that moreover, Riyadh has always officially supported Moscow's defense of the integrity of the Russian state.

"To begin with, [Kadyrov] met with Saudi Arabian officials, who have never publicly supported the [Chechen] separatists," Malashenko says. "No matter what happened, Saudi Arabia always stressed that they are separatists. They -- I mean the government, the king and his princes -- criticized Russia. They strongly criticized Russia but they never even thought about opposing the integrity [of the Russian state]. From this point of view, [Kadyrov's visit] did not create any unexpected results."

Furthermore, Malashenko says, Saudi leaders have their own interest in maintaining friendly ties with Russia -- namely, showing Washington that Riyadh has powerful friends elsewhere.

In the long run, however, Malashenko says there is very little uniting Russia and Saudi Arabia. Both are oil-rich and rivals on the world market. Russia, despite its push for OIC ties, is not a Muslim country. Nor does it have the power to oppose the United States the way the Soviet Union once did.

Kadyrov's official welcome in Riyadh raised indignation among the Chechen resistance, with the rebel website issuing a statement accusing the Saudi leadership of betrayal and saying "May you be cursed for the fact that, at the hardest time for the Chechens, you have treacherously stabbed us in the back."

A recent article in "Stratfor Commentary," an intelligence publication based in the United States, says the Chechen separatists "will not be alone" in their reaction. Stratfor says Kadyrov's visit "will reverberate throughout the [Saudi] kingdom as well" and substantiate accusations by Islamic radicals that the Saudi royal family "is working against Islam and Muslims, thus enhancing Al-Qaeda's capabilities inside the country."

(RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service contributed to this report.)

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