Akhmed Zakayev, a Chechen separatist wanted by Russia for murder, kidnapping and terrorism, was arrested Sept. 17 in Warsaw, where he arrived Sept. 16 for a conference organised by the World Chechen Congress. Zakayev was a leading Chechen political figure who fought Russia in the first Chechen war; he now lives in the United Kingdom, where he received political asylum in 2002. Moscow accuses him of raising funds for Chechen separatists and dislikes his contacts with Russian dissidents like Boris Berezovsky. Russia issued a warrant for his arrest in 2001 and has long sought his extradition.
Zakayev’s extradition to Russia would represent a blow not just to the Chechen movement, but to Russian expatriate dissident movements in general. The prospect also places Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk in a difficult position. Extraditing Zakayev could reinvigorate Poland’s nationalist opposition, led by the Law and Justice (PiS) Party — which lost Poland’s June presidential election — as it could be seen as an example of Tusk caving to Russian pressure. But refusing to extradite Zakayev could sour Polish-Russian relations, which have shown marked improvement over the last 12 months. Even so, Moscow might have to acquiesce quietly to a refusal by the Poles, in order to keep Poland sidelined as Russia continues to consolidate its sphere of influence.
Polish-Russian relations have steadily improved since Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s Sept. 1, 2009, visit to Gdansk to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the beginning of World War II and the subsequent visit by Tusk to Russia in April 2010 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre. The Soviets killed thousands of Polish military officers at Kaytn, an event which remains a highly sensitive topic between the two countries. The visits and Putin’s treatment of sensitive historical matters did much to salve historic Polish grievances against Russia. Relations improved even further during the outpouring of support by the Russian government and people following the fatal crash of a Polish government aeroplane carrying outspoken anti-Russian Polish President Lech Kaczynski and numerous prominent Poles shortly after Tusk’s visit. Moscow has used the disaster to continue this rapprochement.
For Moscow, an accommodating Poland facilitates a wider Russian rapprochement with Europe. It also makes tighter German-Russian relations possible by assuring that Poland does not use its membership in the European Union and NATO to thwart German/EU cooperation with Russia again. And it removes Poland as a facilitator for former Soviet states looking to escape Moscow’s sphere of influence. Poland previously has assisted such states, especially during the Russian intervention in Georgia and during pro-Western ex-Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko’s time in office.
It is not clear how Warsaw will proceed with Zakayev. Tusk has claimed that Poland will not succumb to pressure and will base its decision on national interest. The Polish prosecutor general then said the decision would be based on law, not politics, during a conversation with his Russian counterpart. It would be premature to try to guess what Poland will do based on these vague statements. What is clear, however, is that Poland’s decision will impact Polish-Russian relations.
*This report is reprinted with permission of STRATFOR. It may not be reprinted by any other party without express permission of STRATFOR.
For more reports, visit www.stratfor.com
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