Ruslan Akhtakhanov, a Chechen businessman, public figure, and minor poet living in Moscow, was shot dead on the street late on November 15. Russia’s Investigative Committee immediately listed North Caucasus insurgents as the most likely suspects.
Other members of the Moscow Chechen community are skeptical, however, and with good reason. If self-styled Caucasus Emirate head Doku Umarov wanted to remind the world he is still alive, he could simply have sent another psychologically unstable adolescent from the North Caucasus to Moscow to perpetrate a suicide-bombing that would kill the maximum number of innocent civilians.
That would have made world headlines, while obviating the security risks and expenditure involved in the killing of Akhtakhanov, who was virtually unknown, and whose death remained unreported, outside of Russia.
Umarov has not claimed responsibility for killing Akhtakhanov. His most recent statement, posted on November 20 on the website kavkazcenter.com, was addressed to the Turkish authorities in connection with the murder of three Chechens in Istanbul in September, allegedly by an FSB hit squad.
All The Hallmarks Of A Contract Killing
Akhtakhanov’s murder bore the hallmarks of a contract killing. The killer is reported to have shot Akhtakhanov four times in the chest and then, as is standard practice in contract assassinations, in the head at close range. The gunman escaped in a car with license plates stolen one week earlier from a car of the same model. The vehicle was found burned out and abandoned several hours later at the opposite end of Moscow. The murder weapon had been left in the car.
The murdered man was a member of the Union of Writers of Russia, and Caucasus Knot quoted the head of the Moscow branch of the organization, Vladimir Boyarinov, as suggesting that insurgents may have killed Akhtakhanov because of his positive assessment of the current situation in Chechnya.
Nonetheless, it is questionable whether and how militants living in isolation in the mountains of Chechnya with shortwave radio as their only source of news from the outside world (mobile phones are eschewed on security grounds) would have been aware of the content of what Akhtakhanov wrote.
Moreover, given the suspicion many Muscovites harbor with regard to men from the North Caucasus, it would have been risky (although by no means impossible, as the Moscow theater hostage crisis in October 2002 showed) for Umarov to have sent a group of fighters to Moscow to kill Akhtakhanov in collaboration with trusted operatives already there.
The driver of the getaway car at least would have needed to know the streets of Moscow like the back of his hand.
Other Theories Among Chechen Diaspora
By contrast, sending one or more suicide bombers, whether male or female, to Moscow to blow themselves up would be logistically much simpler, despite the more stringent controls imposed recently on the purchase in any North Caucasus republic of bus tickets to Moscow.
Members of the Chechen diaspora in Moscow who knew Akhtakhanov personally expressed doubt that it was insurgents who killed him, or that he was killed for financial or business reasons.
Akhtakhanov was a deputy rector of the Contemporary Humanitarian Academy, which has its headquarters in Moscow and a string of centers in Chechnya and elsewhere in Russia with a total in 2006 of 85,000 students. He also had an interest in alternative medicine and owned a farm in Chechnya that cultivated plants for use in homeopathic medicine.
Caucasus Knot quotes two members of Moscow’s Chechen community as suggesting that Akhtakhanov may have been killed by Russian nationalists in revenge for the murder in July 2011 of Colonel Yuri Budanov, the Russian serviceman who served a brief prison term for the rape and killing of a teenage Chechen girl in March 2000.
A Puzzling And Incomplete Biography
The biography of Akhtakhanov published after his death does not offer any clues either as to who may have killed him and why.
Indeed, that biography is puzzling and incomplete.
Akhtakhanov is said to have been born in March 1953 in the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR), which is a clear error: Stalin deported the entire Chechen and Ingush nations to Central Asia nine years earlier and formally dissolved the Chechen-Ingush ASSR, dividing its territory between Stavropol Krai, Daghestan, North Ossetia and the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. It was only reconstituted in January 1957 at the then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s behest. The deportees began returning at around the same time.
No details are available of Akhtakhanov’s early life and career. He became an advisor in 1994 to Djokhar Dudayev, who was then president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria.
In 1995, Akhtakhanov established the Democratic Progressive Party, which backed Aslan Maskhadov after the latter’s troops retook Grozny in August 1996, paving the way for the Khasavyurt agreement that ended the war.
When Maskhadov was elected president in January 1997, Akhtakhanov served as his economic advisor.
In May 1998, Akhtakhanov was reportedly abducted, together with Russian presidential envoy to Chechnya Valentin Vlasov, by renegade Chechen field commander Arbi Barayev and held for 47 days before being released. Vlasov was not ransomed until November 1998.
At the start of the second Chechen war in late 1999, Akhtakhanov sided with pro-Moscow Chechen mufti Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov. He later wrote odes in praise of Kadyrov’s son, current Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov.
At the same time, Akhtakhanov reportedly remained a staunch advocate of a secular Chechnya in the face of Kadyrov’s ongoing efforts to impose on Chechens his own idiosyncratic vision of what constitutes traditional Chechen Islam.