Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed Chechen rebels for a terrorist bomb that killed 34 people at a parade in Daghestan May 9. In nearby Azerbaijan, meanwhile, Russia's relentless pursuit of Chechen rebels touched off an incident in early April that continues to trouble Russian-Azerbaijani relations. When Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev meets Putin for a scheduled meeting in June, talks may be especially frosty in the wake of the incident. On April 2, Baku police detained five employees of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB). While media reported that Azerbaijan had dealt with the incident in "civilized" fashion ten days later, the episode cannot help warm Azerbaijani-Russian relations.
Baku media reported that law enforcement officials seized videotapes from the Russians that reportedly included the location of Aliyev's house. Since the Russians turned up near the house, some media agencies described their business as a botched stakeout. The Azerbaijani newspaper Yeni Musavat reported on April 7 that officials had begun tearing down houses near the president's, "for security purposes." The paper did not say anything conclusive about how the government would compensate people who lost their homes, but did quote an official as justifying the move by referring to the "dangerous people" who had turned up near the residence.
Immediately after the arrest, all official sources in the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of National Security chose to keep silent. Initially, Russian diplomat Vladimir Kuznetsov denied the discovery of spies, saying the idea "smell[ed] of provocation." But the Turan news agency, referring to well-informed sources in law-enforcement, reported that employees of Russian special services had entered Baku in order to track Chechen emigrants. Unexpectedly, on the evening of April 8, the Internal Affairs and National Security ministries joined the general prosecutor's department of Azerbaijan for a joint announcement on state television.
As official information has it, police in Baku's Narimanov district detained two Russians, Rashit Yusipov and Sergey Burov, shortly after 8 p.m. on April 2. While examining their car, police detected and confiscated special surveillance equipment. Later, during investigation in Baku's "Europe" hotel, three more Russians Oleg Hramov, Viktor Klochkov and Vitaly Chernishev went into custody.
The Russians, according to the official statement, claimed to be employees of a private Moscow security firm called Alfa-Altair, but confessed to being FSB employees during interrogation. They apparently said they intended to carry out measures regarding Chechen citizens of Russia. They confessed to having spied on specific Baku addresses for a week and, clearly vulnerable to a damaging trial, went into custody.
After appeals from Russian officials, taking into account the importance of preserving neighborly relations and law-enforcement collaboration between the two countries, Azerbaijan delivered the five Russians to their Baku embassy on April 8. National law and bilateral treaties allowed for the case to move to Russia's general prosecutor's office for further investigation.
After the Russians took over the case, Moscow's ambassador Nikolay Ryabov told Azerbaijani TV that "we express great thankfulness to the government and law-enforcement bodies of Azerbaijan in connection with the fact that this regrettable and irritating incident was solved by civilized methods within the mutual legal agreements." But the incident may becloud future collaboration between the countries' security services. Ryabov evaded any assessment of that question.
Ali Asayev, who represents unrecognized Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov in Baku, suspects the Russians may have simply wanted to spy on Chechens, especially in light of forthcoming negotiations between the Russian and Chechen sides. But Asayev scoffs at the idea of needing to track what Chechens do in Azerbaijan. "Chechens' activity has an open nature," he says. Instead, he raises the possibility that the spies were watching Azerbaijani officials.
Mayrbek Taramov, chairman of the Chechen Human Rights Center, tried to promote this idea in an interview with Baku's Ekho newspaper. "We are very glad and appreciated the position of Azerbaijan officials," he said. "That means they realize their responsibility for the safety of people who found shelter in Azerbaijan."
Naila Sohbetqizi is a freelance journalist based in Baku.