Kommersant (Musa Muradov) interviews Akhmad Zakaev
Hardly had Andrei Lugovoi confessed Alexander Litvinenko’s and Boris Berezovsky’s links to the British intelligence, another reclaimed English spy, Vyacheslav Zharko, came to the FSB to give himself up. On June 29th, he was presented to the world in Incident. Investigation program on NTV channel; Izvestia and Moskovsky Komsomolets (MK) published large interviews with the former MI6 agent on July 2nd.
Kommersant-Vlast asked Akhmed Zakaev, who lives in London, to comment Lugovoi’s and Zharko’s confessions. Zakaev met with Vlast correspondent Musa Muradov in a hotel in London, and bravely ordered a cup of tea.
Quite a common citizen at first sight, former tax policeman from St. Petersburg Vyacheslav Zharko announced to TV watchers and newspaper readers that he had been recruited by MI6 with Alexander Litvinenko’s help 5 years ago. Zharko said that after Andrei Lugovoi’s press conference on May 31, 2007, MI6 officers and Boris Berezovsky began calling him “on a secret phone” and “insistently inviting” him abroad. Zharko became afraid for his life, and went to give himself up to the FSB. Zharko claims he was supplying information from the Internet to the British intelligence, passing it off as confidential. MI6 was paying him €2,000 per month for the information.
The most sensational detail is Zharko’s story about the trip to Istanbul in August 2005 together with Litvinenko. There he saw Litvinenko meet with people of undefined appearance (Zharko said to NTV it was people from the Caucasus, to MK – people “of Arab appearance”, and to Izvestia – those “who looked like our people from the Caucasus”, who suddenly turn into “Arabs” again by the end of the interview). According to Zharko, those people gave Litvinenko a certain “jar” (NTV, MK), or a “metallic thing like a container” (Izvestia), after which Litvinenko allegedly said with satisfaction: “Putin will soon be done for”. Zharko implied that Litvinenko received his death from that jar.
I arrived to London at noon. Leaving the airport, I called one of Akhmed Zakaev’s assistants right away, telling him that I came for the promised interview. His answer upset me: “Unfortunately, Akhmed’s plans changed. He is going away for an urgent matter today. We didn’t know how to contact you, to tell you in advance. Sorry. Leave your address and phone number. If there is an opportunity, we’ll contact you.” I stayed in a hotel in London’s quiet district of Highgate, not far from the cemetery where Alexander Litvinenko is buried. I waited. By midnight, Akhmed Zakaev personally called me on the phone. Making sure I’m there in the hotel, he said he was waiting for me downstairs in the lobby. Greeting me shortly, Akhmed pointed at the hotel’s café.
“Anywhere except here,” said a Chechen man accompanying Akhmed, and suggested leaving the hotel.
We walked a little and entered the first café on our way.
“Since we are for the first time here, I hope no one will treat us to polonium,” said Akhmed and ordered tea. I preferred a glass of wine. Zakaev’s companion did not drink anything. When I took out a laptop with the questions prepared for the interview, the companion asked me whose laptop it was, mine or editorial office’s.
“Does it matter?” I asked.
“The laptop might be filled with explosives.”
Only after I assured that no one except me and my children used the computer, did we begin our interview.
“Only Russians can act so roughly”
“Akhmed, do you know Vyacheslav Zharko?”
“No. But I saw the recorded program where Zharko spoke. I do not exclude he might have known Litvinenko. Sasha [Alexander Litvinenko] had many agents in Russia. Two of them, Lugovoi and Kovtun, turned out to have been planted by the FSB. I do not believe Zharko’s statement that he worked for MI6. These statements are made in order to support the Russian authorities’ version of MI6′ connection to Litvinenko’s death. I don’t want to comment Zharko’s story about Sasha’s trip to Istanbul and other stories out of thin air.”
“Lugovoi also claimed that Litvinenko had visited Istanbul on your task, where he met some Chechens.”
“Andrei Lugovoi is suspected of Litvinenko’s murder, and these suspicions are based not on conjectures, but on Scotland Yard’s thorough investigation. Certainly, it isn’t yet a court ruling. So far, he is just a suspect. However, knowing Britain’s legal system, I can state that Scotland Yard would never bring such charges without evidence.”
“But Scotland Yard’s charges do not disprove what Andrei Lugovoi said about Alexander Litvinenko’s cooperation with you.”
“My attitude to Lugovoi and to what he says derives from what sort of man it is. He is suspected of murdering his friend Alexander Litvinenko. Now he would make all sorts of accusations against his victim, so as to avert suspicions from himself. Litvinenko’s family deeply trusted Lugovoi, considering him a close friend, and now this very friend is suspected of the murder. And not without grounds, as I’ve said. That’s why Lugovoi is trying to incriminate vicious connections to Sasha, the connections that could have allegedly led to his death. Speaking of my requests that Sasha was allegedly carrying out, I can say the following: all that is not true. Sasha never went to Istanbul or to the Pankiss Gorge on my request.”
“Could Alexander Litvinenko and Boris Berezovsky have been recruited by MI6?”
“As far as I understand, an agent of a secret service implements some secret tasks. So, he must have an opportunity to carry out secret orders, without attracting attention. With such public figures as Litvinenko and Berezovsky, could any secret operations be carried out? I doubt that MI6, one of the best special services in the world, could risk its reputation this way. It is the FSB who acts without much care for its reputation. Remember how they blew up Zelimkhan Yandarbiev in Qatar: only Russians can act so roughly. Or the story of Sasha’s poisoning: they ashamed themselves in front of the whole world.”
“Litvinenko said a toast for Dudaev and drank”
“You say you did not send Litvinenko to Istanbul. But Litvinenko cooperated with you and your assistants, didn’t he?”
“Yes, he did.”
“In what way?”
“I’m the chairman of the governmental committee [created by Aslan Maskhadov] for investigating war crimes committed on Chechnya’s territory. In due time, Aslan Maskhadov introduced Litvinenko into the committee, at by suggestion. Thanks to Sasha, we collected many documents against the military officials. Sasha personally knew many generals who fought in Chechnya.”
“What was his job?”
“Sasha wrote in his notes that a certain general in a certain time in a certain place gave an order and took certain actions. Sasha gave the number of victims among civilians. We compared that information with our data on what was going on at that community at that time, and everything coincided. This way, we documented war crimes.
“Could you name a specific crime recorded with Litvinenko’s help?”
“For instance, the counter-insurgency operation in Samashki in April 1995: tens of elderly people, women, and children were killed then. Litvinenko named the officers and the generals who gave orders to kill civilians. He also mentioned how and who had planned that operation.”
“How did he know?”
“He was in Nalchik back then, and supervised Chechnya as an FSB officer. Sasha served in the headquarters which were receiving the current information from Chechnya.
“So, Litvinenko also took part in the crimes of which you speak?”
“I asked myself this question as well. However, here’s what I think: if the FSB had had facts of Sasha’s connection to certain crimes against Chechen civilians, it would have been published long ago.”
“FSB officer who served in Chechnya, and remained clean of all that? How did he manage to escape the dirt?”
“I don’t say Sasha was so clean. For instance, he confessed that he frustrated human rights defender Grigoryants’ trip to Strasbourg, when the latter was going there with the “Chechen portfolio”, during the first Chechen war. Sasha put several shotshells into Grigoryants’ bag, and the latter was arrested. Or, the story with arresting in 1996 Johar Dudaev’s widow Alla, when she tried to fly abroad. That young FSB officer who presented himself as Alexander Volkov to Alla, was Alexander Litvinenko. His task then was to find out whether Johar Dudaev had really died, and of yes, what Alla knew about her husband’s burial place. Sasha managed to win Alla’s confidence, by using various methods. Before the questioning, Litvinenko said a toast for Johar Dudaev and drank, although he normally didn’t drink alcohol. When Alla, touched by the gesture, began speaking, Sasha pointed at a device in the room and laid his finger to his lips, meaning `everything is recorded here, we cannot speak openly, let’s better speak on the street. The conversation continued out there, and Litvinenko recorded it all himself. Alla Dudaeva later shared her impression of meeting Litvinenko with me. She was amazed that `such intelligent, pleasant people, able to understand other people’s grief, work in that frightful organization named KGB’. Alla believed that Litvinenko was a stranger in that organization.
FSB worked this way, and Sasha was no exception. But he didn’t participate in mass repressions, non-judicial executions, and other crimes qualified as crimes against humanity. Moreover, Sasha gradually reconsidered his attitude to service in the FSB. He came to the conclusion that the Chechen war is unfair, that it is fought against the Chechen nation due to its striving for independence. He didn’t want to take part in a war like that.”
“Samashki is an example from the first Chechen war. How did Litvinenko help you during the second war?
“Sasha found out in details, through his agents, who attacked a market in Grozny in October 1999, when hundreds of civilians died. He also told us who personally commanded the storm of Komsomolskoe village in March 2000, when many civilians died as well. Or, for instance, the counter-insurgency operation carried out by Russian soldiers in Aldy in 2000. Several tens of innocent people were killed then. Sasha named the officers responsible for that massacre to our committee.
“Did Scotland Yard ask you about Litvinenko’s cooperation with Chechen structures?”
“And did the Prosecutor’s Office investigators in Russia ask?”
“Yes, they did. I told them that Sasha took part in the work of the governmental committee for investigating was crimes.”
“Perhaps, Sasha kept being an FSB officer.”
“Did Litvinenko sincerely denounce Chechen wars, or was he just using the Chechen issue in his conflict with the FSB, with which he broke up for some reasons?”
“Sasha was absolutely sincere, and I trusted him. Shortly before his death, Sasha told his younger brother Maxim in Italy: `You might be considering me a traitor, you may be seeing me as our homeland’s enemy, but I don’t want your and my children to feel ashamed for Chechnya, when in 10-15 years Russia will have to apologize for what it had done to the republic and its people.’ That was his position. By the way, the Chechen subject was not bringing any profits to Sasha. On the contrary, it was just a hindrance in his confrontation with the FSB and the Russian authorities. Because the West has already forgiven the Kremlin for Chechnya, in exchange for its political interests, and no one is especially interested in Chechen investigations except us, Chechen people.”
“They say, there are no former FSB officers.”
“Sasha might have remained an FSB officer, but only in order to counteract his colleagues in Russian special services. He had agents in the FSB, in the Interior Ministry of Russia. Anyone who wanted to escape from Russia to the West, contacted Sasha. His former colleagues trusted him, and sought to meet with him.”
“Russian Deputy Interior Minister Arkady Edelev said that Litvinenko had secretly visited Chechnya so as to destroy the witnesses of Boris Berezovsky’s meetings with Chechen militant commanders. Is it true?”
“If it’s true, then shame on Russian special services who failed to notice the enemy’s arrival into the republic crammed with power structures. In fact, it’s not true. Sasha wouldn’t be able to go there even if he wanted to.”
“Could Litvinenko be linked to the terrorist attack on Nalchik in 2005? According to Lugovoi, Litvinenko had allegedly told him that himself.”
“All those conversations are led with the only purpose: to rub Sasha in the dirt as much as possible. Litvinenko had no contacts with the insurgents in the North Caucasus. I know it for sure. All that is bluff. Litvinenko’s participation in Chechen affairs was restricted to delivering the information to us. With Sasha’s help, we were finding out who among our people is wanted by the FSB, what danger threatens whom. Sasha procured reliable information on the soldiers’ location and moving in Chechnya.”
“How did he do it?”
“As I’ve said, Sasha had agents among the acting officers of Russian special services.”
“Was Litvinenko getting money for it, or was he doing it for the sake of his ideological views?”
“Absolutely for ideological sake. He was really fighting against the regime. Sasha used to say: `The only thing able to break the Kremlin regime is Chechnya.'”
“What about his informers in the FSB? Did they also stand for the idea?”
“The motives were different. Sasha told me that several people prepared to flee from Russia, and hoped for his support in that.”
“How did Litvinenko earn his living, if he was so unmercenary?”
“He worked for Boris Berezovsky, and was not hiding it. He received salary for his work. Besides, he wrote books, which were published in different countries. I believe they brought in quite a nice income.”
“I’d be the next, and Boris Berezovsky would follow”
“How did you find such a useful informer?”
“I met Sasha for the first time in 2002, but I knew about him before, ever since his revelatory press conference in Moscow. When Sasha wrote his book about the explosion of houses, Aslan Maskhadov commissioned me to find the author and to meet with him. It was very important for Aslan to prove it was not Chechens who had blown up the houses in Moscow and other Russian cities. It was necessary to find out what Litvinenko’s statements that special services stand behind the explosions are founded on.”
“Who introduced you to Litvinenko?”
“What did you talk about with Litvinenko at your first meeting?”
“He told me: `Akhmed, you and me ended our war by peace.’ He meant the peace treaty signed by Maskhadov and Yeltsin in Moscow on May 12, 1997. Sasha served no longer in Chechnya after these events. Sasha often remembered the first war. Once he happened to question a Chechen boy who took part in Salman Raduev group’s attack on the Dagestani village of Pervomaiskoe. Sasha asked the arrested boy: `You are so young, what are you doing among these terrorists? You have to be going to school, to learn, you’ve got future to live for.’ The boy replied: `I’m not the only one like that. My entire class went to war.’ Then, Sasha remembered, he decided for himself: this war, in which entire classes of schoolboys go to fight, cannot be won. It should be finished. So, Sasha’s critical attitude to the second Chechen war was absolutely sincere, I trusted him completely. And he trusted me. We were very close.”
“Was it you who advised him to adopt Islam?”
“No. It was his own decision. On the contrary, when he shared his thoughts about it with me, I warned him against a hasty decision. Perhaps, his friendship with me and other Chechens led him to that idea. For instance, he saw how I treated by fellow countrymen: we would sit down, have dinner, and pray together when the prayer time comes. Sasha was genuinely surprised: `How can it be so? People gathered and had nice time together without any alcohol and drunken fights.’ I think such observations also pushed him towards making that decision. Besides, he was born and grew up in Kabardino-Balkaria, among Muslims. That circumstance must have affected him either. His sister was married to a Kabardinian, also a Muslim.”
“Why do you think Litvinenko was murdered?”
“I believe because he was helping the Chechens. By his death, he actually saved me. If this poisoning were not disclosed, I’d be the next, and Boris Berezovsky would follow. If not for the polonium trace, Lugovoi could have come to Sasha’s funeral, met me there, and talked to me. I would invite him to visit me, considering him Sasha’s friend, and suspecting nothing at all. Soon after Litvinenko’s death, Lugovoi actually said they really wanted to poison Zakaev, because the latter has many blood feud enemies.”
“Do you have feud enemies?”
“Everyone knows I don’t have a single one. When Zelimkhan Yandarbiev was murdered by an explosion, they also spoke of his alleged feud enemies. Yet, it turned out to be Russian special services, as the investigation showed. It would be the same in my case.”
“At Litvinenko’s funeral, you said he had asked to re-bury him in Chechnya. Is it true?”
“Yes, it is so. He loved Chechnya, loved our people. I think there will be the time when his request will be implemented. Sasha wrote letters to Aslan Maskhadov, asking him to grant him Chechen citizenship. I have a copy of that letter.”
“What did Maskhadov answer to that request?”
“The president was simply late to sign the decree.”
Kommersant July 10, 2007
All the Article in Russian as of July 09, 2007
The verbatim record of Akhmed Zakaev’s questioning by the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office on March 30, 2007, can be found (in English) on address: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/chechnya-sl/message/53032