WikiLeaks-revealed details of Russian Caucasus wedding are disputed, laughed off

By Kathy Lally
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 4, 2010; 9:59 PM

MOSCOW - It must have been the invitation of the season, that Caucasus wedding that was so memorably WikiLeaked the other day, and it resulted in such a titillating tale - replete with gold-bullion wedding gifts, awe-inspiring alcohol consumption and simmering cauldrons of sheep and cattle.

The author of that classified cable from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow has not been identified, but another part of the story is coming clear: how he cadged the invitation to the wedding, a three-day event that Gadzhi Makhachev, head of Dagestan Oil, put on for his 19-year-old son in the North Caucasus city of Makhachkala.

Though the mesmerizing August 2006 dispatch was signed "Burns," the State Department has denied that it was written by the obvious suspect, Undersecretary William J. Burns, who was U.S. ambassador to Moscow at the time.

Other denials are floating around as well.

This week, Makhachev was quoted by the Caucasian Knot news agency disputing various aspects of the cable: "There was a wedding of my son Dalgat and 200 of my relatives and friends were invited to the wedding. Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov [who was described as having given the bride and groom a five-kilogram lump of gold] was not among them. There was nothing special about the wedding - just an ordinary Dagestani wedding.

"I don't have houses in Moscow, Paris or San Diego, and I have never driven a Rolls Royce."

What to believe?

Enver Kisriyev, quoted in the cable as the leading scholar of Dagestani society, recalls how the American got invited, but not his name. Turns out, the diplomat simply made it known he intended to visit Dagestan, a restive Muslim region bordering Chechnya where it is not uncommon for people to disappear. The wedding invitation was issued as something of a safe-conduct pass in a society that is deeply hospitable.

"I do remember the Americans wanted to go to Dagestan, but it's dangerous to go there," Kisriyev said in Moscow. "If Gadzhi made them his personal guests, they would be safe. So he invited them to his son's wedding."

Makhachev is a revered figure in Dagestan, as a glance at his Web site shows. A major Dagestani entertainer even wrote a song in his honor. It's in a local language, but somehow the sentiment is unmistakable.

Kisriyev laughs merrily at the American's account of the wedding. He says he heard that Kadyrov was certainly at the wedding, but he thinks the writer was overly dramatic with accounts of dancing children showered with hundred-dollar bills and lump-of-gold presents.

"I had so much fun when I read it," he said. "It was an American comic interpretation of an ordinary Dagestani wedding."

No harm done, he said, even though the cable's publication was horribly undiplomatic.

"It's slightly embarrassing for my guys and for the Americans," he said. "It's like seeing someone naked by accident. You'll get over it."

The American described the lezginka, the Caucasian dance, with great enthusiasm. It comes in many styles, from the decorous to the rowdy.

"There's absolutely nothing new in all these leaks," said Sergei Arutyunov, head of the Caucasus Department at the Institute of Ethnic Studies. "Maybe it's a revelation for you, but not for us."

And governments shouldn't even think of prosecuting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, he said.

"It's their job to make things confidential," he said, "and ours to find out what they say."

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