x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Russia playing out its Caucasus politics in Turkey, say activists

The murder of a pro-Chechen businessman in Ankara was the latest in a series of unsolved killings targeting members of anti-Russia groups in Turkey. And activists campaigning against Russian policies in the Caucasus say Moscow is behind the crimes.

Activists hold a banner at the Russian consulate in Istanbul saying
Activists hold a banner at the Russian consulate in Istanbul saying "Turkey is a graveyard for Chechens" after a businessman was murdered in Ankara.

ISTANBUL // When a pro-Chechen activist in Ankara opened the door of his office to a visitor one evening last week, he was shot several times from close range by an unknown assailant and died on the spot.

Medet Onlu, a businessman in the Turkish capital, held the unofficial title of "Honorary Consul of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria", the unrecognised rebel government in the Russian region of Chechnya.

He was the latest victim in a series of unsolved killings targeting members of anti-Russia groups in Turkey.

Activists campaigning against Russian policies in the Caucasus say Moscow is behind the crimes.

"It was an assassination in the heart of the country," Ozgur Aktekin, a member of the Caucasus Forum, an association of Chechen and Circassian activists in Turkey, told The National.

Citing footage of surveillance cameras that he said was leaked to the media, he said Onlu's suspected killer boarded a plane to Russia after the murder.

"Russia has committed many crimes, including in Turkey."

Imkander, a group supporting refugees from the Caucasus in Turkey, also issued a statement blaming "Russia and collaborating governments" for the Onlu's death.

A suspected accomplice of the killer has been arrested but the main suspect remains at large, according to news reports.

An estimated five million Turks trace their roots to the Caucasus, parts of which were ruled by the Ottoman Empire before being conquered by Russia in the 18th and 19th centuries.

During two wars that Russia fought against Chechen rebels in the past two decades, several thousand Chechens sought refuge in Turkey, where sympathies for the rebels were strong.

Chechen and pro-Chechen Turkish activists in Turkey made headlines by hijacking a Black Sea ferry in 1996, hijacking a Russian plane in 2001 and by taking hostages in luxury hotels in Istanbul in 2001 and 2002 in protest against Russia's policies.

At the time, Russia accused Turkey of supporting Chechen separatists, a charge Ankara denied.

Mr Aktekin said seven members of anti-Russia groups had been killed in Turkey since 2008, including Onlu, but the Onlu case could prove to be a watershed.

The six previous victims had all been former Chechen rebel commanders, whereas "this time they killed a Turkish citizen", he said. "I would not have thought that they would go that far."

Mr Aktekin and other activists want the Turkish government to raise the issue of the killings with Moscow, but so far Ankara has shown little inclination to do so.

"It is a criminal case for which the investigation continues," a Turkish foreign ministry source told The National in reference to Onlu's killing.

An official at the Russian Embassy in Ankara told The National he was unable to comment on the case because the victim was a Turkish citizen and the police investigation was continuing.

A spokesman for Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of Chechnya, said the Chechen leadership had never heard of Onlu before. He said that any attempt to link his killing with Chechnya was "absolutely illogical", as the victim was a Turkish citizen, according to Reuters.

Hasan Kanbolat, director of the Centre for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (Orsam), a think tank in Ankara, said the Turkish government wanted to wait until the full details of the crime were known.

Turkey is careful not to upset Moscow, a key economic partner. Russia is Turkey's largest supplier of natural gas and a Russian company is building Turkey's first nuclear power plant.

At the same time, Turkey has become a prime destination for Russian tourists, with 3.6 million visiting last year.

Mr Kanbolat said Ankara had so far declined to make the killings of Chechens in Turkey an issue in its relations with Moscow but he said a new situation could arise with the killing of Onlu.

"If it turns out that Russia was behind this, things will change," he said. "Mr Onlu was no Chechen. He was born in Turkey, as were his father and grandfather. It was his great-grandfather who came from the Caucasus."

Mr Aktekin, who took part in a demonstration in front of the Russian consulate in Istanbul two days after Onlu's murder, said he was concerned about his own safety. Like Onlu, Mr Aktekin is a Turkish citizen with ancestral roots in the Caucasus and an anti-Russia campaigner.

"It makes you nervous," he said. "But we will not be intimidated."

At least one Chechen dissident in Istanbul has received official police protection. Enes Kuban Kural was provided with a bodyguard last year after receiving a death threat, according to Amnesty International.

News reports said the suspected killer had first visited Onlu on May 21, the anniversary of the forced eviction in 1864 of hundreds of thousands of Muslim Circassians from the Caucasus by Russian forces.

Onlu was killed on May 22, apparently because he had not been alone during the visit the previous day, the reports said.

"May 21 is an important symbol for all peoples of the northern Caucasus," Mr Kanbolat said.

 

tseibert@thenational.ae

With additional reporting by Reuters