Akhmed Zakayev is the Chechen Foreign Minister in Exile. He lives in London.
Zakayev has been pleading the Chechen cause in the West since being wounded soon after the second war started in 1999. It has been an uphill struggle, as all that most people knew about the Chechens when he arrived were the atrocities committed in the separatists’ name: six Red Cross workers butchered in their beds at a hospital in Chechnya in 1996; four telecoms engineers working for a British company beheaded in 1998, their headless corpses left by the roadside; the capture of a Moscow theatre in 2002 by Chechen separatists, including women wired as suicide bombs; and a massacre of innocents in September 2004 at a school in Beslan, near Chechnya.
Zakayev has responded by arguing that this has always been a conflict in which reality is kept backstage and illusion presented for public view. It is common knowledge that Russia, which doesn’t like to let journalists and aid agencies near Chechnya, has been economical with the truth about what its troops are up to in the region. Moscow is shy of calling its Chechen operations ‘wars’ – the Kremlin’s line is that its troops are simply stopping a crimewave emanating out of Chechnya, and it always refers to separatists as “criminals” and “armed bandits”. Since 9/11, Russia has also tried to present what Zakayev defines as essentially a nationalist conflict in religious terms, trying to win Western approval for what it presents as an attempt to contain Islamist fundamentalism in its own Muslim territory.
Zakayev goes further by saying that Russia’s secret services – the FSB, which Putin himself used to head – has actually financed, planned or manipulated many of the attacks popularly blamed on Chechen terrorists. This belief is shared by the coterie of London friends he has been closest to since moving to the capital in 2002 – among them Berezovsky, Russia’s negotiator between the wars when Zakayev was Chechnya’s, and Anna Politkovskaya, who until her assassination in Moscow last autumn was Russia’s only investigative journalist to visit Chechnya regularly and follow up the stories behind the rumours. It has become harder to brush aside these eye-popping tales since the unsolved murder last November of Litvinenko, the ex-FSB man who became Zakayev’s London neighbour after escaping Russia, and wrote extensively detailing what he said was insider knowledge of the Russian secret services’ hidden role in several attacks blamed on Chechen separatists. Despite suggestions from Moscow that Berezovsky poisoned Litvinenko, British opinion has coalesced behind the police view that two ex-FSB colleagues are the likeliest suspects.