Zelimkhan Abdumuslimovich Yandarbiyev
Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev was born in 1952 in Kazakhstan. In 1956, his family returned to Chechnya to live in Stary Atagi. Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev studied at the Maxim Gorki Institute of Literature in Moscow and was a co-founder of the clandestine Prometheus literature club, which was banned in 1989. He published several volumes of poetry in his lifetime.
In May 1990, he founded and led the Vainakh Democratic Party (VDP), the first Chechen political party that was committed to an independent Chechnya. The VDP initially represented both Chechens and the Ingush until their split, which followed Chechnya’s declaration of independence from the Russian SFSR.
In November 1990, Yandarbiyev became a deputy chairman to the newly formed All-National Congress of the Chechen People (NCChP), which was led by Dzhoxar Dudaev and ousted the Soviet-era leadership. With Dudaev, he signed an agreement with Ingush leaders splitting the joint Chechen-Ingush republic in two.
Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev supported the independence movement from the outset. In the first Chechen parliament, from 1991-1993, Yandarbiyev headed the media committee. Beginning in 1991, he served as the Vice-President of the republic. From 1994-1996 during the First Russian – Chechen War, Yandarbiyev had little connection with military operations and instead was spending his time writing books on the independence effort. When Dzhoxar Dudaev was assassinated in 1996, he became acting President.
In late May 1996, Yandarbiyev headed a Chechen delegation that met with Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin for peace talks which resulted in the signature of a ceasefire agreement on May 27, 1996.
Yandarbiyev stood in presidential elections held in Chechnya in February 1997, but was defeated by Aslan Maskhadov, getting 10 per cent of the votes and landing third behind Maskhadov and Shamil Basayev. Together with Maskhadov, Yandarbiyev took part in signing the peace treaty in Moscow on May 12, 1997.
On February 13, 2004, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev was assassinated when a bomb ripped through his SUV in the Qatari capital, Doha. Yandarbiyev was seriously wounded and died in hospital. His 12-year-old son Daud was also seriously injured. Some reports said two of his bodyguards were killed as well, while others claimed that the Yandarbiyevs were the only victims. It was initially unclear who was responsible for the blast, but suspicion fell on the SVR and/or the GRU.
On February 19, 2004, the Qatari authorities arrested three Russians in the Russian Embassy Villa for the murders. One of them, the first secretary of the Russian Embassy in Qatar, Aleksandr Fetisov, was released in March, allegedly due to his diplomatic status. The remaining two GRU agents, Anatoly Yablochkov (also known as Belashkov) and Vasily Pugachyov (sometimes misspelled as Bogachyov), were charged with the assassination of Yandarbiyev, assassination attempt of his son Daud and smuggling weapons into Qatar. According to Moscow, Yablochkov and Pugachyov were secret intelligence agents sent to the Russian Embassy in Doha to collect information about global terrorism. Russia’s acting Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov pledged state support to the suspects and declared that their imprisonment was illegal. There were some speculations that Aleksandr Fetisov had been released in exchange for Qatari wrestlers detained in Moscow.
The trial proceedings were closed to the public after the defendants claimed that the Qatari policemen had tortured them in the first days after their arrest, when they had been held incommunicado. The two Russians alleged that they had suffered beatings, sleep deprivation and attacks by guard dogs. Based on these torture allegations and the fact that the two officers were arrested within an extraterritorial compound belonging to the Russian Embassy (i.e. effectively on Russian soil), Russia demanded the immediate release of its citizens. The suspects were represented by an attorney from the law firm founded by Nikolai Yegorov, a friend and fellow student of Vladimir Putin at Leningrad State University. The Qatari prosecutors concluded that the suspects had personally received the order to eliminate Zelimkhan Yandarbiev from Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. On June 30, 2004, both Russians were sentenced to life imprisonment. As he passed the sentence, the judge stated that they had acted on orders from the Russian leadership.
The verdict of the Doha court caused severe tensions between Qatar and Russia, and on December 23, 2004, Qatar agreed to extradite the prisoners to Russia, where they would serve out their life sentence. The agents received a hero’s welcome on returning to Moscow in January 2005 but disappeared from public view shortly afterwards. The Russian prison authorities admitted in February 2005 that they were not in jail, but said that a sentence handed down in Qatar was “irrelevant” in Russia.