A Chechen Separatist versus Chechen Separatists

He was near the top of the list of enemies of the Russian-backed Chechen government. But that government is now reaching out to him as its last, best hope for peace.

“He” is Akhmed Zakayev, prime minister of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, or CRI, the Chechen government-in-exile following Russia’s reoccupation of the breakaway republic in the mid-1990s.

Zakayev met with Dukvakha Abdurahmanov, the chairman of the Russian-backed Chechen government’s parliament, in Oslo last week for a formal discussion on the ground situation in Chechnya. The meeting, which was mediated by Chairman of the Chechnya Peace Forum Ivar Amundsen, lasted for the better part of Wednesday and Thursday, and concluded with worried, but hopeful, signals on just where the still-violent status quo is headed.

“There is a need to talk,” Zakayev told Chechen Press afterwards.

The CRI had led Chechnya’s separatists in trying to overthrow Russia’s rule of their state since 1991. Russian military operations over the 15 years following drove its leadership either undergound or into exile. Zalayev is in the latter category, having lived in London since 2002.

In the CRI’s place, Russia established a reigning Chechen Republic, with an authoritarian government propped up by Moscow. But Russia has failed, so far, in its ultimate goal of quashing Chechen resistance.

“Fighting in the Chechen Republic continues, not only in the territory of the Chechen republic. They continue throughout the North Caucasus,” he said.

He added that he doubts that the massive renovation projects Russia is planning for Grozny and other Chechen cities are going to help, either.

“We can build a mosque, we can revive the house, we can build anything we want,” he said. “But as long as there is no consolidated position on the existing problems, to stop the violence is impossible.”

He and Abdurahmanov will have another, 10-day meeting in London later this year.

Ramzan Kadyrov, current leader of the Moscow-backed Chechen Republic, has been brutal in his use of force against the separatists. But he is evidently hopeful that the softer touch of Zakayev might achieve for peace what force of arms alone cannot. Thus in February 2009, he went so far as to invite Zakayev to come back and take up a permanent seat in the Chechen Republic’s government.

“It is no secret that he would like to have Zakayev as a vis-a-vis, because he believes that Zakayev now worth a lot to quite a lot of people. And if he can somehow drag Zakayev on their side, these people also would, if not his supporters, then at least, not his enemies,” said Andrei Babitsy, Russian correspondent for Radio Free Europe, on Chechen Press.

Zakayev declined Kadyrov’s offer, but said he is more than willing to work together with him on ending the violence.

“I am not in politics for the first time. Maybe even unfortunately,” he said. “Not reckoning with the reality that exists, is not just politically illiterate, it is bad for everything and for everyone.”

Zakayev represents the moderate wing in Chechen politics: pro-democracy, pro-reform, and against the use of any more violence than is needed to gain freedom for the Chechen people. These stances made him the odd man out in fall 2007, when Dokka Umarov, president of the CRI, declared the CRI officially null and void and said that his goal was no longer merely an independent Chechnya, but a vast Islamic empire, the Caucasus Emirate, which would unite Chechnya, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and parts of Russia under shari’ah law.

Zakayev, then Umarov’s minister of foreign affairs, immediately condemned Umarov and urged all members of the resistance to stay loyal to the CRI and to independence for Chechnya only. He lost out: All but three field commanders took Umarov’s side.

So Zakayev spoke then, and the Chechen resistance ignored him. What is to stop them from ignoring him when he speaks now? He is a moderate who is speaking to ideologues. And ideologues don’t tend to think highly of moderates. Zakayev’s stance against Umarov’s emirate is one that many in the movement have not forgotten, let alone forgiven. For a case in point, consider the story on Zakayev’s decision to work with Kadyrov as the Kavkaz Center, a Chechnya-based news agency, reported it. The story lays out the bare facts, but then goes on to remind readers of Zakayev’s “scandalous ‘appointment’” to prime minister and describes the CRI as a “telephone government” that is “living on the rights of refugees in Europe.”

Zakayev is an appealing and rational voice among many extremist ones in the Chechen separatist movement. And he holds the most workable ideas for its future. Should Chechnya ever gain its freedom, he is surely someone that it will need.

But sadly, he has only so many fans. The bulk of the resistance fighters do not want what he wants. And they are not going to lay down their arms simply because he tells them to. So ultimately, the chances that talks between him and Kadyrov will quell violence in the republic are pretty slim. But the thought is a nice one all the same.


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