20 years under Putin: a timeline

Akhmed Zakayev, political emigrant and head of the government of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria in exile, spoke with Elena Servettaz about his take on Boris Nemtsov’s murder and the involvement of the Chechen “North” battalion fighters, about the relationship between Ramzan Kadyrov and Vladimir Putin and the so-called “hit list” of the Russian opposition.


Leader of the Chechen opposition Akhmed Zakayev, currently residing in London, headed the government of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria in exile in 2007. Russian authorities put him on the international wanted list. However, the British court rejected Moscow’s extradition request due to lack of evidence and granted Zakayev political asylum. Photo: AFP


Elena Servettaz: Zaur Dadayev, one of the suspects in Boris Nemtsov’s murder, served in the Chechen battalion “Sever” (North). What is this unit?

Akhmed Zakayev: “North,” “East,” and "South“—these battalions were created by Russian occupation forces throughout Chechnya at the beginning of the second military campaign. The battalion “North” we are talking about is considered a division of Russia’s Ministry of Interior Affairs. [They are] collaborators who took Russia’s side. Under the command of [Akdmad] Kadyrov, they fought against the Chechen rebels. These battalions were fully supported by Moscow and the funds came directly from Russia’s budget. [Last December,] in order to demonstrate the power of these battalions, 20,000 people were drawn to Grozny’s stadium. They claimed to be “foot soldiers” of Putin and ready to carry out any of his orders. The people involved in Nemtsov’s murder are part of these “foot soldiers” who had been paraded by Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of Chechnya.

ES: How do people get into the “North” battalion?

AZ: This is a unit from the Ministry of Interior Affairs (MIA). It’s the usual makeup: someone will be sent to the “North” battalion, someone to the “East” battalion “Vostok,” but they are all, of course, subordinate to Kadyrov and the interior minister.

ES: Who commands the battalion?

AZ: It is known—and I think it is true—that the commander of this unit is one of the brothers Delimkhanov.*

*Adam Delimkhanov, the oldest brother, is a deputy of the Russian Duma and a member of the United Russia party; he is rumored to be Ramzan Kadyrov’s cousin. Other Delimkhanov brothers are known to have served in Akhmad Kadyrov’s guard.

ES: Almost immediately after the arrest of the suspects in Nemtsov’s murder, Ramzan Kadyrov posted on his Instagram account that Zaur Dadayev was “a true Russian patriot” who had been decorated and was a deeply religious person. What do you think about Kadyrov’s immediate reaction?

AZ: Kadyrov is sending a signal to those who killed Nemtsov for his “anti-Islamic statements” that they should maintain this version [of events]. He’s telling them, “Follow this version and I will not forget you. I will fight for you. I will not betray you.”

ES: That is a message to the detained people?

AZ: It was a chain reaction. Let’s start with the fact that the current regime accomplished three things at the same time. [In killing Nemtsov, it has] rid the regime of the opposition leader, a man who was able to fight the regime—and he did it very skillfully, competently, and bravely. And day by day, he was gaining more support within Russia. In today’s crisis, [Nemtsov] was posing a great danger to Putin as a political opponent. And it was then necessary to get rid of him. So they did. That’s one thing. Then Putin said that Nemtsov was a “sacrificial victim” and he demanded that the law enforcement agencies solve the crime that the entire world community was condemning. This objective was completed. The crime was solved. That’s two.

And finally the third point: Recently there was news that Ramzan Kadyrov quarreled with the Russian regime’s puppets in the Donbass, and he took Chechen units out. This was done without the consent of the security agencies that came directly from Russia to control the situation in the region. Kadyrov has now been under close watch by those who are unhappy with the unilateral decisions he took in eastern Ukraine. And here’s the situation: there is a North battalion, Putin’s foot soldiers, who just follow orders. Only two people could give the order for an operation of this scale [i.e., Nemtsov’s murder]: Ramzan Kadyrov or the supreme commander himself, Vladimir Putin. In fact, it turns out that those who solved the crime have put Putin in an awkward position: he must either give up Kadyrov or be held responsible for the murder himself. And the version that Nemtsov could have been killed for alleged “anti-Islamic statements” gives Putin an opportunity to get Kadyrov out of the line of fire.

The situation is unfolding in a classic way: The Kremlin solved the problem and got rid of Boris Nemtsov, whom they hated, and protected Putin and Kadyrov. They don’t care about public opinion in Russia—it just does not exist. I say this not to blame Russian democrats or the opposition. It is just that under dictatorships, public opinion cannot survive. And for the West, the version of the “Islamic track” is the most digestible.

ES: Does this mean Putin decided to support Kadyrov?

AZ: Putin made Kadyrov understand that he would never betray him, under any circumstances, by awarding him the Medal of Honor. And Putin’s press secretary’s statement that the process of awarding it is a long one and that [the timing] was just a coincidence— I don’t believe that. It’s an absolute lie. There’s a trial in England in the case of Alexander Litvinenko and the main person who’s been indicted is [State Duma deputy and former FSB officer] Andrei Lugovoi. Lugovoi’s guilt has already been 90 percent proven and we can be sure that the court will declare that Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun [another person involved in the case] are the killers. And the one who ordered Litvinenko’s murder is the Russian State. Putin gave Lugovoi an award [on the same day as Kadyrov]. This way, Putin makes them understand that everything will be OK. When Putin came to power, he and those who are in his circle [began to] live by this code. What is the code for thugs? We do not betray each other, we do not abandon each other—that’s the framework that Putin has created.

ES: Does the argument that Putin may no longer need Ramzan Kadyrov have any basis?

AZ: No. Putin will never abandon Ramzan, and Ramzan will never do anything without Putin’s permission. Putin and Ramzan are like Siamese twins.

ES: Could we imagine that the members of the North battalion would be able on their own to carry out such an operation—to commit a murder in the center of Moscow, in front of the Kremlin, and to escape despite all the police forces in the area? Or would someone have to help them?

AZ: I have no doubt that everything was done under the cover of Russia’s existing power structures. [The killers] were not operating on their own. Let’s start [with the fact] that in my opinion, Nemtsov’s murder has nothing to do with the official version that it was carried out for religious reasons. I have read Nemtsov’s statements: there was absolutely nothing offensive to Muslims in what he said. Boris Nemtsov was a very professional and experienced politician. And he was very ambitious. He had the ambition to lead the state, and he could not afford to say anything that might offend the religious feelings of 20–25 million Muslims in Russia. This is precisely a political contract killing. And today it is clear that not two or three or even four people would be able to carry out such [an operation in Moscow] without being covered by those in power.

For Ramzan Kadyrov, nothing is personal—he’s just a mirror image of Putin. Whatever Putin does not like, whatever disturbs him, that will be an obstacle for Kadyrov. People who create such obstacles are his personal enemies.

ES: After the execution of Charlie Hebdo’s journalists and cartoonists, Ramzan Kadyrov reacted to the statement of another opposition leader and public figure, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Khodorkovsky called on people to support the French journalists, and Kadyrov pointed to him as his “personal enemy.” How many such personal enemies does Ramzan Kadyrov have now?

AZ: As many as Putin. For Ramzan Kadyrov, nothing is personal—he’s just a mirror image of Putin. Whatever Putin does not like, whatever disturbs him, that will be an obstacle for Kadyrov. People who create such obstacles are his personal enemies. There are no personal motivations for [his] fighting with Khodorkovsky. Putin and his circle at that time made a hit list, on which were Anna Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko, Boris Berezovsky, Zalimkhan Yandarbiyev, Ahmed Zakayev. And now they have compiled a new “hit list.” And [the people on it] have been labeled enemies of Islam. The KGB has this way of operating—to associate their problems with international problems. Today the world is fighting against Islamic extremists. At one time, it was the people of the North Caucasus—Chechens and Ingush—who were deported [to Kazakhstan in 1944] on charges of having collaborated with the Nazis. At the time, the West had a clear idea about what Nazism was and that one should be punished for cooperating with the Nazis. Today the Kremlin has compiled its hit list [to make it look like] the people are killed by extremists and religious fanatics. But in fact it is a cover-up operation in which extremists eliminate Putin’s political opponents.

That’s why all those people whom Putin, or, rather, Kadyrov, declared his personal enemies—Boris Nemtsov, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Alexei Venediktov—must understand that a real threat hangs over them. The decision for the “hit list” was made not in Grozny, but in Moscow. I’ll tell you more. When in 2011–12 the opposition organized for the first time a demonstration with 100,000–120,000 people, then it was decided to eliminate the four leaders. They decided that [Alexei] Navalny and [Sergei] Udaltsov would go to prison, and that Boris Nemtsov and Garry Kasparov—they would be physically eliminated. You know that for twenty years we have been fighting against Russia...

ES: But you are fighting not against Russia, but the Kremlin’s power—this is a crucial point.

AZ: Yes, the Kremlin’s power, of course. Over the past twenty years, we’ve had our informants. Not everyone in the Kremlin, or even in the power structures, supports Putin’s approach to the Chechen problem. There were and there still are people who give us very useful and very accurate information. And we’ve had accurate information about who was preparing such an operation. This version has been confirmed by Putin himself. He said that overseas—he had England in mind—people were looking for a sacrificial victim to undermine the Russian state. At that time Boris Berezovsky was alive and lived in London. So he became a target [of official propaganda]. We passed the information we had [to the opposition]. After that, Garry Kasparov left Russia and never came back. And Nemtsov decided to go into the power structures, believing that this would protect him. Then, in 2012, [the operation to eliminate the opposition leaders] did not work out. The Bolotnaya case started and the opposition was divided. Criminal inquiries were opened against many participants of the protest movement, including Sergei Udaltsov and Alexei Navalny.

Then nothing happened, because Putin, at the beginning of his third term, began again to assert himself in the West. And additional negative events would be highly undesirable for him. Today, when Russia is involved in the Ukrainian crisis and is on the verge of economic collapse, it is not necessary for Putin to flirt with the West. Instead of flirting with the West, it is important to him to control the situation inside the country. That’s Putin’s number one goal. That’s why he needed to hit the opposition, to eliminate Boris Nemtsov, who was its central figure and its recognized leader. Nemtsov publicly stated that he had proof of Russian troops in Ukraine. He was going to publish a report about it in the near future. And economic problems, which leave 10–15 percent of civil servants without means of support, could push these people into the ranks of Nemtsov’s movement. And he would have been able to change peacefully the current regime.

ES: You mentioned that you have people who are ready to help you and give accurate information. Do you have any information on what is really going on inside Chechnya?

AZ: You know, in Chechnya, for the past ten years, with the exception of those who are in power, people are by themselves and the occupation regime is by itself. But there is a message that people are waiting for changes. People are convinced that there will be fundamental changes in Chechnya and they connect them with the inevitable changes in Moscow. But there is another side: every day many people leave Chechnya, and those who remain are struggling to survive. As for those who Putin relies on, they are like animals, they feel the disaster is approaching and they are in agony. There have been endless mopping-up operations [in Chechnya] over the past few months. On the slightest suspicion that someone might oppose the regime, they try to neutralize him—people are kidnapped, taken away, and they just disappear. Chechen authorities themselves understand that what is happening today in Moscow will have a 100 percent impact on Chechnya. There will be a change of regime in Moscow—and it is absolutely sure, without any hesitation, that there will be a change of regime in Chechnya. Today, that’s what sustains Chechnya and the Chechen society.