London Sunday Times on Mashkadov visit


The Goldsmith gang wants to help the leader of Chechnya. Simon Sebag Montefiore finds out why Courting the king of the wild frontier The reception in Westminster for the visiting president was grand enough for a European head of state. A regimental band in full played its bagpipes; the champagne flowed; there were British generals and politicians; there were Thatcher's impish friend Lord McAlpine, now leader of the Referendum Movement, comedian Rory Bremner, Lord Tebbit, Labour and Tory MPs, William Cash and his svelte daughter Letitia, Field Marshal Lord Bramall in uniform; and there was Sir James Goldsmith's widow, the formidable Lady Annabel. There were phalanxes of beautiful London socialities and British merchant adventurers hoping to make vast fortunes in remote lands.

Burning torches lit up the darkness, paparazzi fought for photographs, the massed bands of retired Scots Guardsmen, dressed up in uniforms that belonged on the set of The Charge of the Light Brigade, burst into Amazing Grace - and the president, with tough bodyguards and British peers, arrived.

So who was the leader? Chirac, Clinton or Kohl? No, he was Aslan Maskhadov, president of the Ichkerian Republic of Chechnya, the tiny war-torn but oil-rich republic that defeated Russia. His visit to London last week culminated incongruously in a dinner at the Ritz with Baroness Thatcher, a walkabout with Imran Khan, the cricketer husband of Jemima Goldsmith, and the plaudits of Cat Stevens, the 1960s troubadour now known as Yusuf Islam, who praised brave Chechnya beside the lustrous Jemima.

There were It girls asking whether the Chechens were from Czechoslovakia and whether it was a fancy dress party. There were young Chechen men in fur hats who had fought and triumphed in the battle of Grozny. There was a flamboyant Chelsea designer in pink plastic and shades. And there were Georgians, Ingushetians, Azeris, Dagestanis, all the colourful romantic peoples of the wild and noble Caucasus. It was a wonderful cosmopolitan and unlikely scene, as far from my memories of grim, doomed Grozny, the capital city, as it was possible to be.

This is about more than an exotic visit. This is the story of the strange new alliance between the Chechens and the leaders of Goldsmith's Referendum party - how the Goldsmith millions may be used to rebuild the ruins of Grozny. Bizarrely, this new alliance and the possible investment of the Goldsmith fortune in Chechnya would fulfil the old Chechen legend from Queen Victoria's time that good Britain would one day save their benighted land.

The party reached a climax when the two worlds of East and West, of the warrior nation of heroes and western dynasty of plutocrats met in the persons of President Maskhadov and Lady Annabel. Gradually, the symbols of these two powers moved towards each other through the crowd of fighting photographers and bemused beauties, until they came together with a burst of excitement like the clashing of cymbals in the military band.

Cynics ask: are the Chechens just the "new Zulus"? Goldsmith and casino owner John Aspinall famously supported the Zulus, possibly because western businessmen delude themselves that they are the "warriors of the boardroom". But if we have an ideal of the martial vigour of a warrior nation, no people live up to it like the Chechens.

At the president's receptions there were also veteran Chechen supporters wondering where the fashionable Goldsmith set was when the Chechens were actually desperately fighting for survival in 1994. Then, when the intervention of Britain's beautiful people could have been invaluable, the cause was argued only by Prince Charles Tchkotoua, the Chechen ambassador to Europe, a Georgian millionaire and a few journalists and dons.

Is the Goldsmith fortune really to be invested in Grozny? If so, there could be no finer cause than that of this swashbuckling warrior nation with which to remember the tycoon. The president, this lion of the Caucasus, is the shy soldier who defeated the entire Russian army in pitched battle. He was an obscure Soviet artillery colonel of Chechen race until the fall of the Soviet Union. It was Maskhadov, displaying a genius for guerrilla warfare that recalls Vietnam's General Giap, who in a ghastly war won effective independence for Chechnya. "Even when my HQ was underground, under the presidential palace in Grozny surrounded by Russians, I knew we would win," says Maskhadov, in suit and high fur hat. "Because the Chechen is born free in every age and we never give up."

But every western country fears Russia too much to recognise Chechnya. Hence this was not a formal state visit, though it was considerably more exciting than a real one.

The Chechens, whose national symbol is the wolf, are a brave mountain race who have faced the most vicious suppression by the Russian empire. Under two great leaders, the 18th-century Shaik Mansour and the famous 19th-century imam, Shamil, the Chechens defeated the Russians. Shamil finally surrendered in 1859. In 1944 Stalin ordered the deportation of the entire Chechen race to central Asia. At least 400,000 died in camps or beside the railway tracks. Maskhadov himself was born of deported parents in exile in Kazakhstan in 1951.

Chechnya is now independent but ruined. It is cursed by the kidnappings of westerners, particularly two Britons, Camilla Carr and Jon James. "It is a tragedy for them, but it's a tragedy for us, too," says Maskhadov. "Before I came to London I did everything I could to find them. I think we will liberate them, but it's a matter of time."

It seems a very long time since I was in Chechnya before the war in 1994 and first met a quiet Chechen commander called Maskhadov in a dark little office in Grozny's now destroyed presidential palace. "I remember us meeting," he says. "But I cannot believe so much has happened since. We must rebuild and we must attract investment."

This is where the Goldsmiths come in. If half of the president's visit is for public relations purposes, the other is to clinch deals to reconstruct Grozny, to invest in Chechen oil and create a viable economy. That is why, behind all the razzmatazz, the president is being guided into the British Establishment by the lieutenants of the Referendum party - McAlpine and Patrick Robertson, Goldsmith's former PR impresario, who are the co-ordinators of this visit.

"Chechnya," explains Maskhadov, "is at the heart of the Caucasus, close to the vast oil reserves in the Caspian, crossed by oil pipelines, near the Silk Road."

"Is the Goldsmith family going to invest in the rebuilding of Grozny?"

"I don't want to talk about such things. But everything that represents Britain and Chechnya working together to open doors to investment in our country is good."

"But your business advisers have chosen Lord McAlpine and Patrick Robertson, backed by the Goldsmiths, as the group to rebuild Grozny?"

"It's possible."

"You're a fan of Imran Khan?"

"I don't know much about him. He came to Grozny to sign some trade protocols."

This was at the start of the Referendum set's flirtation with Grozny when Imran visited Grozny to help find the British hostages.

Details of the deal are foggy: the immediate aim of the Goldsmith group is to promote a new oil company called the Trans-Caucasus Energy Company to market Chechen oil and a Caucasus Investment Fund, chaired by McAlpine, to reconstruct the Chechen infrastructure. These companies have sponsored Maskhadov's visit. It is through the investment fund that the Goldsmith millions would be channelled to help the Chechens.

"Our elders," says the president, "have always said Britain will be the best friend of Chechnya. There is a legend . . ."

When I was there, Chechens frequently told me we would "one day share a king".

Once again, the Chechen wolf stalks London.


© 2007 Chechen Republic Online