Akhmed Zakayev: Chechen actor turned Kremlin fugitive

17th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

Akhmed Zakayev, 51, who was arrested in Poland on Friday, is a silver-haired former actor turned spokesman for the president of a self-proclaimed Chechen republic, who has spent the last seven years as a political exile in London.

Branded a terrorist in Moscow, in London he joined a circle of fugitive Kremlin critics headed by the controversial Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky in attacking then president Vladimir Putin.

In an interview with Russian magazine Kommersant Vlast last year, Zakayev said that he "like every Chechen" would like to return home, but voiced scepticism that he could have any effective role.

"To fit my return to some political intrigue that won't last longer than a week of PR, and then to find myself again in the same circumstances that we are in now, that would be not just short-sighted on my part, that would be a crime."

The dapper Zakayev, who was wearing a neat pinstriped suit when he was arrested, is "no warrior," Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov told Rossiiskaya Gazeta last year, offering him a job if he came back as a theatre actor or director of a concert hall.

The maverick Chechen strongman later withdrew the offer and on Friday said that Zakayev should be tried in Russia.

Born in 1959 in Kazakhstan, where the Chechen nation was sent into exile by Stalin, Zakayev was able to return to Chechnya with his family during the Khrushchev thaw.

After studying drama, Zakayev worked as an actor at a theatre in the Chechen capital of Grozny in the 1980s, specialising in Shakespearean roles.

In 1994, he became minister of culture in the self-proclaimed Chechen republic of Ichkeria, led by Dzhokhar Dudayev, a former Soviet air force general.

He then served as a field commander in the first Chechen war between Russia and the breakaway republic, during which Dudayev was killed in 1995.

He became a presidential aide on national security of Chechnya's republic's next president, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, before being reappointed as culture minister.

He then served as a deputy premier under the following president, Aslan Maskhadov, a rebel leader who beat Yandarbiyev in elections in 1997.

Zakayev fought again in the second Chechen war, sparked after Russia sent in troops in 1999, during which he was wounded and went abroad.

Maskhadov appointed him in 2001 as his special envoy to Western countries. Maskhadov was killed in an operation by Russian special forces in 2005.

In 2001, Russia issued an international arrest warrant for Zakayev on charges of organising armed uprising and attempts on lives of law enforcement officials.

Extradition trials in Denmark in 2002 and Britain in 2003 collapsed after courts found evidence supplied by Moscow was insufficient.

Britain granted Zakayev political asylum in 2003 and has refused Moscow's calls for him to be extradited, causing a chill in relations between the countries.

Zakayev condemned rebel leader Doku Umarov for proclaiming an Islamic state called the Caucasus Emirate in Chechnya in 2007 and asked separatists to back his government in exile.

© 2010 AFP

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