By Armen Zakarian
General Johar Dudaev, the late president of Russia's breakaway Chechen Republic, had secretly visited Armenia on several occasions in the early 1990s to lay out his vision of a "peaceful and independent Caucasus," according to a former Armenian government official.
Filaret Berikian, who was in charge of unofficial contacts with indigenous peoples of the North Caucasus, says Dudaev cited ancient ethnic bonds between Armenians and Chechens and once sent a fuel consignment to the blockade-stricken country.
"Dudaev was a quite broad-minded person and was well aware of the role played by Armenians in the Caucasus," Berikian said in an interview with RFE/RL on Thursday. "He would even say that Armenians and Chechens have common ancestors and that there are hundreds of similar words in our languages."
Dudaev, according to Berikian, told officials in Yerevan that cultural affinity between the two peoples was particularly strong before the Chechens converted to Islam in the 16th century.
The charismatic Chechen leader, who declared independence from Russia in 1991, was killed in 1996 during the first Russian military campaign in the breakaway region and is still seen many as a symbol of Chechen resistance to Moscow. Rumors have long been circulating about his confidential trips to Armenia. But they have never been confirmed by the authorities in Yerevan anxious to avoid Russian accusations of supporting Chechen separatism.
Berikian claims to have repeatedly met Dudaev in the Armenian capital in his capacity as deputy head of the now defunct government Department on Special Programs. In his words, those contacts never had an official character and stopped after the start of the first Chechen war in 1994.
"General Dudaev wanted to build a peaceful Caucasus," Berikian said. "He played an important role in keeping Chechen militants from meddling in the Nagorno-Karabakh war [from the Azerbaijani side]. Furthermore, during the worst days of our blockade he helped us with fuel. It was on his initiative that quite a lot of Chechen fuel oil reached Armenia."
Berikian claimed that the vital fuel was transported by railway through neighboring Azerbaijan whose government had sealed the border with Armenia at the start of the Karabakh war in 1991. He declined to specify how the consignment could pass through Azerbaijani territory.
Berikian said that Dudaev's death gave rise to Chechen warlords who favor a strict interpretation of Islam and propagate hostility toward Armenia and other Russian allies in the Caucasus. He said that was the reason why Chechen gunmen who seized a Moscow theater last week refused to release Armenians along with other Caucasian hostages.