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Surrealpolitik

Then, shortly after the negotiations broke down, Washington got word that Akhmadov's life was in danger. "A message was passed on to him by outside channels that he could no longer stay in Baku," says the Jamestown Foundation's Howard. "That he would probably be handed over to the Russians." Akhmadov, his U.S. supporters urged, should seek sanctuary in America. He had enough friends in high places in Washington to all but guarantee him a fair hearing with U.S. immigration judges. His 2002 application for political asylum should have been a slam dunk. But then Russian prosecutors and the Moscow branch of the multinational police organization Interpol notified the U.S. Embassy that Akhmadov was wanted for terrorism. "We have information that I. Akhmadov has ties with international terrorist organizations and is engaged in resolving matters of financing and material-technical support of gang units," the demarche read.

Specifically, Akhmadov was being charged with organizing terrorist training camps, and leading 2,000 armed insurgents, along with Basayev and Khattab, in the 1999 Dagestani incursion. Akhmadov testified at his immigration hearings that he had been in Moscow at the time meeting with Western officials. As evidence against him, Russian authorities produced affidavits from two Chechen prisoners of war who said they saw Akhmadov on Chechen television calling for the creation of a greater Islamic state in the Caucasus.

Ilyas Akhmadov
Ilyas Akhmadov
Ilyas Akhmadov might look like a Washington wonk, but he's among Russia's most wanted fugitives. (Greg Miller)

"Do you know how the Russians treat Chechen prisoners of war?" Akhmadov asks. "[The two prisoners] would have sworn that they saw me with Osama bin Laden himself if the Russians had told them to." The documentation supporting the charges sent to the Department of Homeland Security did not include a tape of the alleged television broadcast.

To those who know Akhmadov, the charges seem preposterous. "Having had him live under my roof for over a year, I can tell you it was absurd, laughable," says Nicholas Daniloff, an old Russia hand who met Akhmadov at a 2002 Harvard conference, soon after Akhmadov applied for political refugee status. Daniloff, a retired foreign correspondent, took Akhmadov into his Boston home when he realized he had no means of support, and later got him a summer job doing manual labor in Vermont. "I know a thing or two about getting caught in the middle of Great Power politics," Daniloff says. In 1986, as the Moscow correspondent for U.S News & World Report magazine, he was arrested by the KGB and charged as a CIA spy. "It was tit-for-tat. The FBI had just nabbed a Soviet agent in New York, and the KGB needed to find someone they could trade for him."

In response to Akhmadov's asylum application, Russia demanded his immediate extradition in 2003. Suddenly an immigration case that likely would have been resolved with one or two hearings in Boston was being kicked up to Washington, where it would languish for two years. Fortunately for Akhmadov, another benefactor, Max Kampelman, a former chief arms negotiator for Ronald Reagan and a counselor to the State Department, arranged for the white-shoe legal firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver and Jacobson to represent him free of charge. Douglas Baruch, a partner, landed the case. "The evidence against [Akhmadov] was obviously fabricated, in a very slipshod and amateurish manner," says Baruch. Leonard Shapiro, the immigration judge handling Akhmadov's hearing, apparently felt the same way, dismissing the charges for lack of evidence. (In an almost identical case in Britain, where Chechen envoy Akhmed Zakayev was accused by Russian authorities of 13 counts of murder and hostage-taking, a judge also dismissed the allegations. "I am satisfied," ruled British Judge Timothy Workman, "that it is more likely than not that the motivation of the government of the Russian Federation was and is to exclude Mr. Zakayev from continuing to take part in the peace process and to discredit him as a moderate.") "My concern," Baruch recalls, "was that the delay in the final decision was for political reasons, for the Bush administration not to offend the Russians."

In July 2004, however, after running up legal fees that (if he had had to pay them) would have set him back $250,000, Akhmadov recieved the final decision. He could stay in America.

IT WAS ONE PIECE of bad news for close U.S.-Russian ties in a cascading series of ill omens. The 100-signatory open letter calling for an end to the appeasement of Putin followed several months later, on September 28. In late December, Freedom House, a New York-based bipartisan foundation that monitors democracies across the globe, downgraded Russia to its Not Free classification:

"Russia's step backwards into the Not Free category is the culmination of a growing trend under President Putin," warned Freedom House's executive director, Jennifer Windsor, in the December report, "to . . . a dangerous and disturbing drift toward authoritarianism."

That same month Colin Powell criticized Moscow for meddling in Ukraine's elections, and the Los Angeles Times reported that the White House was rethinking its strategic partnership with the Kremlin and had begun "a broad review of its Russia policy that could lead to a more confrontational approach toward Moscow over its treatment of neighboring countries and its own citizens."

Though White House spokesman Scott McClellan immediately denied that any policy review was being contemplated, Condoleezza Rice, the new secretary of state, conceded last month that Russia's crackdowns on dissent "make it more difficult to pursue a full and deep relationship."Just how difficult was apparent in last month's Bush-Putin summit in Slovakia. At times testy and awkward, the talks had none of the easy bantering and camaraderie that has marked past encounters between the men. President Bush chided President Putin for backsliding on democracy, but so gingerly and briefly that the "tweak" reprimand, as it became known, fell far short of the dramatic gesture critics in Washington had been calling for. Putin, for his part, made it clear that the White House, with its Iraqi campaign and torture scandals, was in no position to lecture anyone on inalienable rights. Still, the agreements signed showed that the two countries will continue to do business together. Bush won Russia's cooperation on a series of new measures to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction that ranged from better tracking of sales of small surface-to-air missiles that can shoot down civilian airliners to keeping a tighter lid on fissionable nuclear materials. Once again, the critics in Washington groused, Putin had shrewdly played the terror trump card to win Russia an extension on its strategic-partnership status.

In the run-up to the summit, I met with Akhmadov a final time. It had been five months since our first furtive encounter, and the change in Akhmadov was remarkable. He was cheerful and brimming with confidence when I dropped by his eighth-floor office at the National Endowment for Democracy.

With his somber suit, dark tie and desk full of position papers, he looked the picture of the Washington policy wonk. With his days of dodging bullets and diplomatic fire from Moscow largely behind him, Akhmadov seemed to be settling in nicely to the quiet, scholarly routine provided by his Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellowship. He had his own apartment now and an ambitiously efficient assistant to do his research, and he was clearly enjoying giving speeches on Chechnya, hosting academic luncheons and publishing the odd opinion piece on the Chechen conflict.

"My situation is a little more stable," he said, as we rode the elevator down for a cigarette break. "I guess I'm getting used to the idea that I will be staying in America. I'm glad," he added, "that people here are beginning to see Putin for what he really is." Indeed, the cooling of relations between Washington and Moscow certainly has not hurt Akhmadov's cause or credibility, and he could not resist a small, satisfied smile as he spoke.

His cell phone, I couldn't help but notice, still rang with frustrating regularity. If anything, Akhmadov seemed to have become even more popular, and in demand. This time it was his brother on the line, calling from exile in Baku. "I still really miss my family," he said, after exchanging a few words with his brother in an odd mix of Chechen and Russian argot.

Akhmadov said he planned to devote the rest of his life to trying to find a peaceful resolution to the Chechen-Russian conflict. But, he conceded, he was not very hopeful. "The situation now is in the hands of radicals and hard-liners, and I fear for Chechnya's future."

Whatever the future holds for Ilyas Akhmadov, he has certainly come a long way from seven months ago, when he worked as a farmhand in Vermont. "The farmer had no idea who I was until the last day," Akhmadov smiled. "But he says I can come back next summer to bale hay if Washington doesn't work out."

Matthew Brzezinski's latest book is Fortress America: On the Front Lines of Homeland Security. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Tuesday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.


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