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From Byzantium To Grozny -- Russia's U-Turn Toward Zakayev

Akhmed Zakayev at a press conference with representative of the Russian government in London on August 12.
Akhmed Zakayev at a press conference with representative of the Russian government in London on August 12.
It is not for nothing that Russia considers itself to be the successor and spiritual heir to the Byzantine Empire. Just like the long-vanished realm on the shores of the Bosporus, Russia straddles Europe and Asia, and its culture, political tradition, and way of life reflect both influences.

Ordered in mysterious ways, both Byzantium and then Russia engaged in politics that were viewed by others as opaque, duplicitous, and hypocritical. In their heyday, they exerted real influence on the world stage, but their disastrous decline was precipitated not so much by external pressures or infighting among the ruling class as by their excessive fondness for dogma, and their inability to evolve and embrace change.

For all their reputation for somnolence, corruption, intrigue, and occasional descent into paranoia, however, Russian rulers, courtiers and bureaucrats, just like their Byzantine predecessors, have been anything but uncreative, inflexible and lacking in ideas. Even today, a Russian politician can perform U-turns and somersaults that would turn any acrobat green with envy.

Witness, for example, the Kremlin's recent overtures to the exiled Chechen leader Akhmed Zakayev. Over the past two months, officials from the pro-Moscow administration in Chechnya have been conducting negotiations with Zakayev purportedly aimed at the "consolidation of the Chechen people." One of those officials, Chechen parliament speaker Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov, confirmed last week in London that their mission was endorsed by both President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Just two years ago, however, Putin, then Russian president, issued a public demand that Zakayev, who had received asylum in the United Kingdom, be extradited to Russia to face criminal charges.

"There is no need to sift through any archives for this," Putin told a news conference at the end of a G8 summit. "We have the evidence -- video footage of his criminal activity."

'Why? Why?'

Last September, Putin accused Britain of providing a safe haven for Russia's enemies, in clear reference to a group of Russian emigres, including Zakayev. His country's relations with the U.K. would never recover, Putin declared, as long as London remained a base for anti-Kremlin dissent.

"Why are you allowing the territory of Great Britain to fight Russia? Why do you allow Great Britain to be used as a launch pad?" he asked a bemused group of foreign journalists and academics at a meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. It would be like Russia letting IRA terrorists use Russia as a safe haven to plan attacks, he claimed.

So why the volte-face? Why have the Russian authorities abandoned the old and worn-out "we-never-talk-to-terrorists" mantra so quickly?

There are two possible reasons.

First, Russia never truly believed Zakayev had ever been involved in any terrorist activities. When the Russian Federation sought Zakayev's extradition from Britain in late 2002, the materials presented by the office of the Russian Prosecutor-General to the court in London did not contain any charges of terrorism, though in the media Russian officials routinely branded him as a terrorist.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the Russian leadership seems to be increasingly frustrated with the situation in Chechnya and with its current head, Ramzan Kadyrov. Since November 2008, at least four known critics of his regime have been murdered execution-style in Russia and abroad. Kadyrov strenuously denies any involvement, but those killings, no doubt, have caused the Kremlin diplomatic and political embarrassment.

Deteriorating Security

To add insult to injury, the security situation in Chechnya, after a period of relative calm, has begun to deteriorate again, with a recent upsurge in bombings and attacks. If anything, Kadyrov's leadership style, his dictatorial ways, brutality, and contempt for justice only fuel resentment and impel more young men and women to join the ranks of the insurgents.

The Zakayev team will probably attempt to capitalize on Kadyrov's failures and present an alternative program for Chechnya's stabilization at "a world Chechen congress" that the two negotiating parties have agreed to convene within the next few months. Zakayev may also call for a more vigorous investigation of the recent killings, an amnesty for thousands of Chechens currently serving lengthy prison sentences on charges of "participating in illegal armed formations," and the re-burial of several prominent Chechen leaders, such as Djokhar Dudayev and Aslan Maskhadov.

Finally, the prime minister of the Chechen separatist government-in-exile is likely to appeal to the Russian authorities not to persecute the families and relatives of the alleged rebel fighters, as such reprisals only furnish another steady source of recruits for the insurgency.

Zakayev's agenda appears to differ radically from that of the pro-Moscow Chechen negotiators, who seek primarily to rally Chechen factions behind the Kadyrov leadership. However, the Kremlin's tacit approval of the negotiating process and of the forthcoming Chechen congress may signal a realization that a change of course is essential if Chechnya is ever to be truly stabilized.

Exactly how far the Russian leadership is prepared to go is still unclear. The inner workings of Russia's Byzantine politics are as difficult to decrypt as ever.

Aslan Doukaev is director of RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.