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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Touring the Caucasus With The Boss

Heavily armed Russian Interior Ministry soldiers fanned out across the road and squinted in the bright headlights of the convoy's lead car, a silver Mercedes. It was close to midnight at the checkpoint on the eastern border of Chechnya, essentially now a frontier post between Russia and the de facto independent republic. The troops peered warily into the cars of the strange party that had pulled up.

Several men in suits and ties emerged to stretch their legs. Most of them were British investment bankers. They stood around chatting while the drivers registered with the police. One man appeared particularly relaxed. Dressed in a well-tailored, dark suit, and with a neatly trimmed mustache and beard, he stood with his hands in his pockets.

The soldiers would have been horrified if they had known who he was: Khozh-Akhmed Nukayev, Chechen mafia boss and escaped convict. More recently, he was a Chechen government minister and war hero. A fierce proponent of Chechen independence, the enormously wealthy Nukayev is now carving out a role for himself as a player in the republic's attempt to resurrect itself from war ruins. And to that end, he has managed to entice some wealthy British investors to consider his lofty vision for the Caucasus. "By no means do I support Chechen independence," said Francis Pike, executive director of Peregrine Investment Holdings. "But I am interested in the whole Caucasus region. I think it has great potential."

In September, Nukayev hosted four British investors on a tour of the Caucasus -- from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea through Georgia, Azerbaijan and Chechnya -- to promote his plans to create a pan-Caucasus common market that would exploit the oil riches of the region. Nukayev's main guest was Lord Alistair McAlpine, the former Conservative Party treasurer and now a member of Britain's House of Lords. A veteran traveler with investments around the world, McAlpine, 57, was in final discussions with Nukayev to create together a Caucasus Investment Fund. A friend of Nukayev's after a Hollywood producer brought the two together in Paris, McAlpine was about to gamble some of his own personal wealth on the intriguing figure from the underworld. "That's what this trip is about really," said McAlpine. "The agreement was dependent on my coming to see the region."

When I first heard of the possibility of my joining the entourage, I was wary. Although I had just finished a book on the war in Chechnya, I had not reported much on the Chechen mafia. But I had heard of enough troublesome encounters with Russian criminal organizations from other journalists to be worried. To report objectively on people who are used to dictating their terms and don't hesitate to use force seemed an impossible and dangerous task.

On the other hand, it was difficult to pass up a chance to meet as legendary a figure as Nukayev. Prominently featured in "Moskva Banditskaya," a book detailing mafia activities in the capital, Nukayev is regarded as a vor v zakone -- literally, a "thief by law," but more accurately, a godfather of the underworld. No less intriguing was the remote, but still possible, scenario that a Chechen bandit could become the economic savior of Southern Russia.

I met up with the team in Tbilisi, Georgia's elegant capital, halfway through their tour. They had already visited the Black Sea ports of Batumi and Poti and the new oil terminal under construction at Supsa. Nukayev is banking on the chance that oil reserves from the Caspian Sea, estimated at 200 billion barrels, will make the region the most important geo-strategic zone of the next century. The most efficient route for the oil to reach Western markets is across the narrow corridor in the dramatic mountainous region of the Caucasus. Oil has just started flowing into one pipeline, from the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, through Chechnya, to the Russian port of Novorossiisk. A second route, through Georgia, is slated to start operating by the end of 1998. "Prosperity will spread along the pipelines," McAlpine said.

The group was staying at the presidential guest house and emerged at mid-morning from their rooms, weary after a lavish, all-night banquet hosted in their honor by Nugzar Shevardnadze, the nephew of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze. We set off for several appointments with the mayor and parliamentarians in Tbilisi.

Nukayev, 42, offered little during the meetings, letting his Polish No. 2, Mansour Jachimczyk, do the talking. Nukayev sat motionless, leaning on his silver-topped cane, which he has used since a war injury left him with a limp. But it is clear who is in charge. Nukayev's staff all address him as "boss," and practically jump to attention at his requests.

The next day we flew to Baku aboard a chartered jet. Sitting in his shirtsleeves, reading newspapers and making calls on his mobile phone, Nukayev resembled a typical international businessman. Relaxed, he began to tell the story of his life in his characteristic straightforward, calm style, mixing in the occasional joke.

The son of a laborer, Nukayev grew up in Chechnya's capital, Grozny, and the village of Geldegen. He entered Moscow State University's law department but never graduated, as he veered into the underworld. Nukayev began purchasing goods from foreign diplomats and then selling them on the black market. He was first arrested in 1980 for assaulting an African diplomat. "We had made a down payment and they did not produce the goods," he said with a slightly sheepish smile. "So we had to punish them."

"Moskva Banditskaya" reports the recollections of a factory boss who encountered Nukayev's fearful power. Nukayev told the manager that if he did not pay a monthly sum, his family would suffer. When the manager asked around his business associates for advice, he was urged not to mess with the Chechens.

In 1975, around the same time that he began dealing in the black market, Nukayev and two close student friends set their minds on creating an independent Chechnya. They called themselves the Chechen Liberation Committee. Nukayev was assigned the task of raising money and preparing an armed wing. Members of this now disbanded group all went on to play important roles in the Chechen government. The group included, for example, Said-Khasan Abumuslimov, a member of the Chechen team conducting negotiations with Russia.

Soviet authorities imprisoned Nukayev three times over the next 10 years on various charges. Meanwhile, Nukayev gradually built up a following among the Chechen criminal groups both inside and outside of prison. A natural leader, his reputation grew beyond the underworld. When Chechnya's most feared war commander, Shamil Basayev, first arrived in Moscow after finishing school, armed with a big dagger, he asked Nukayev to assign him a special task.

Inevitably, Nukayev came to clash with other criminal bosses. In 1989, the then 12 leading godfathers, mostly Russians and Georgians, and including Nukayev, held a summit meeting in Moscow. Nukayev was in the midst of a fierce battle against four prominent mafia gangs, and the other godfathers wanted to curb his activities. Nukayev refused to cooperate with them. The Chechen criminal groups had traditionally remained separate and never formed alliances with other underworld organizations. In his "Gulag Archipelago," Alexander Solzhenitsyn described the Chechen prisoners as ungovernable and unbreakable.

The godfathers subsequently tried to rub out Nukayev, but he survived those attacks, which included a car bombing, a knife attack and shootings. "Thanks to divine providence," Nukayev said, "none of those 12 are alive today."

Nukayev claims the KGB made several attempts to recruit him while he was in prison but that he resisted. Arrested again in the early 1990s, he was sent to a labor camp in Komsomolsk-na-Amure. "That was the most dangerous time," he recalled. "I realized the KGB wanted me killed because they set the other prisoners on me."

In his years of incarceration, Nukayev staged two successful escapes. The first time, he says he killed the chief guard by breaking his neck with a blow from behind with a wooden stick while the prisoners were on a work patrol in the woods. Nukayev made off on foot across the Siberian wastes, eventually jumping trains for the long journey back to Moscow.

The second time, Nukayev's followers mounted a daring charade, posing as KGB inspectors collecting him for interrogation. Using forged papers, they escorted Nukayev, in handcuffs, onto a plane and flew him to Moscow. Nukayev's friends, including former Chechen President Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev and former Foreign Minister Ruslan Chimayev, himself a political prisoner during the 1980s, confirm these remarkable tales.

During his 20-year criminal career, Nukayev has amassed enormous wealth through racketeering. One estimate puts his wealth at a quarter-billion dollars. Russian journalists who follow Nukayev say he is a financial wizard and probably made a fortune in the early 1990s aviso scam, in which millions of dollars of Russian federal funds were stolen through the use of false letters of credit.

Nukayev does not deny using threats and violence and acknowledges that the tales in "Banditskaya Moskva" are accurate. But he and his Chechen friends say such activities are a necessary means to an end: to build up a strong power base in order to secure an independent Chechnya. Nukayev has a strong personal sense of destiny when it comes to his role in the struggle. "I need to be strong to defend and to help my own people," he said.

The British investors on our tour seemed unruffled, even enthralled, by Nukayev's reputation. As Nukayev recalled his battles with other godfathers, the bankers listened with fascination. They seemed to view him as a kind of courageous buccaneer. "He is a product of his times," Pike said. Likening the end of the Soviet Union to the fall of the Roman empire, Pike reasoned that a kind of anarchy inevitably opens the way for new figures -- like Nukayev -- to rise to prominence. Many fortunes around the world were made in equally dubious ways, he said.

McAlpine played up his Scottish highlander ancestry, pointing out that he is a descendant of rebel hero Rob Roy, a detail that went down particularly well with his Chechen hosts. McAlpine presented Nukayev with a skean dhu, a traditional dagger worn by highlanders in their socks, and even acted out how his forebears killed their enemy with the small weapon -- with a thrust inside the collarbone, straight to the jugular. "They have a lot in common with the Scottish highlanders," McAlpine said of the Chechens. "And they still live like that, like we did two centuries ago."

In Baku, Nukayev put up his guests in the new five-star Europe Hotel, one of the many flashy landmarks of the city. While McAlpine went for a meeting at the Finance Ministry, we toured the old city with its graceful oriental palaces and turn-of-the-century mansions built by Baku's first oil magnates.

Our fleet of Mercedes cars, coordinated by men constantly communicating with each other on their mobile phones, arrived at a pretty outdoor restaurant with immaculate timing, shortly before sunset. Security guards milled about in the background, around a long table laid out under the trees.

At dinner, as course after course of kebabs, grilled meat and fish were served, Nukayev explained his strong ties with Azerbaijan and the family of President Heidar Aliyev.

Nukayev arrived here in 1995, near death from a shrapnel wound in his leg received in the battle for Grozny at the beginning of Chechnya's war against Russia. He had contacted an old Baku student friend, Altai, who is related to Aliyev through marriage.

Altai and his relatives provided a safe sanctuary for a year, not only to Nukayev, but also to hundreds of other wounded Chechen fighters. Azerbaijan was the only place the Chechens could receive hospital care without facing arrest. Aliyev never openly supported the Chechen cause, but effectively allowed unofficial assistance to the Chechens. "It is during the worst times that you learn who your real friends are," Nukayev said in a toast to the Baku guests at the table.

Nukayev began to raise funds for the war effort through his mafia connections as he recuperated in Baku and started running arms to the Chechen separatist fighters. It was at this time that he started to devise a plan, at the suggestion of then Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev, to secure the republic's future financial survival.

Azerbaijan's oil wealth and his good contacts in Baku -- where everything seems to be run by Aliyev's clan -- inspired Nukayev's idea for a pan-Caucasus common market. His vision is broadly based on the European model in which the Coal and Steel Community -- which created free trade of the commodities within Europe and helped the area rebuild its war-devastated economies and bury its enmities -- eventually became the European Union. Nukayev envisions a similar scheme, in which the southern Russian regions, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and the two breakaway territories of Chechnya and Abkhazia, would promote peaceful, cooperative, regional trade. "We believe that the way to security in the region lies in economic integration," Nukayev said in a speech in June to the Crans-Montana Economic Forum, an annual gathering in Switzerland of finance ministers and prominent business figures from around the world.

Chechnya was the last and most important leg of the tour. Grozny, reduced to rubble in the 21-month war, is a testament to the Chechens' determination to break from Russia. Here, in his home town, Nukayev revealed the most about his personal thoughts and plans.

Inside Chechnya, carloads of armed fighters flanked our Mercedes sedans and the hulking black armored Chevrolet Suburban carrying some of our entourage. Custom-built for Nukayev in the United States, bullet- and bomb-proof, the eight-ton Chevrolet is more like a tank than a car. Nukayev was taking no chances with his visitors, amid the latest regional problem of kidnapping.

With emergency blinkers flashing, we toured the city and Grozny's Lenin refinery, much of which is out of action from war damage. Nukayev walked us through the rubble where the presidential palace once stood and described the desperate battle for the parliament building across the square. It was during that battle that Nukayev was wounded.

We went to the president's residence for a meeting with current Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. "I know Khozha well. We fought together with success," the former military commander said, impressing upon his visitors his support for Nukayev's economic plans. "The military war with Russia may be over, but now we are fighting the economic war," he said, a line also often used by Nukayev, referring to the struggle against Russia's economic blockade of Chechnya.

During a visit with friends in Grozny, mostly ex-convicts and former political prisoners, Nukayev entertained us with more stories from his lurid life in Moscow. Our host was a stocky young man, dressed in a floral print shirt with a thick gold chain around his neck. He lives in extraordinary splendor, with glittering chandeliers reflecting on polished parquet floors, and an enormous television set. Nukayev, by contrast, is sober in his dark suit. He asked to sit outside under the stars to eat shashlik in the traditional way.

"In those days we only had knives," Nukayev said, as he recounted an episode during which three carloads of Chechens attacked the Baumanskaya gang at a restaurant, in retaliation for the killing of two Chechen men. Nukayev and his men killed 15 people and wounded about 50 others. "Blood was everywhere. The police were so terrified they asked us what to do. Then the KGB