Mr. Zakayev, whom Moscow describes as "Enemy No. 1," had been placed on an Interpol "red notice" wanted list by Russia for alleged involvement in terrorist acts. Polish authorities said Friday they detained him as he arrived to attend an international conference of Chechens, pursuant to their international legal obligations.
Many analysts say Zakayev, an exiled former rebel field commander, has no involvement today with a movement that has shifted from separatism to militant Islamist ideology. In fact, the new Chechen insurgent leader has denounced him as a traitor. But the momentum for his extradition order is unchecked – if only because he remains, in Russian eyes, a symbol for a Chechen cause that has taken the lives of hundreds of Russian civilians.
"Zakayev was Chechnya's representative abroad in 2002, when the theater siege happened in Moscow, and he voiced his solidarity with the terrorists," says Alexei Makarkin, director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. "From that moment, Russia began to demand his extradition....
"It's understandable that in the West it may be difficult to distinguish between a separatist and a terrorist. Admittedly, we might have the same difficulty looking at foreign countries. But those [terrorist acts] caused deep shock and trauma here in Russia, and they are things our authorities do not want to forgive," says Mr. Makarkin.
Poland: We will not follow Russia's orders
A Polish court will determine in the next few days whether Zakayev should be extradited to Russia.
"The Russians have issued a warrant for the arrest of the Chechen leader. Because of that Poland has to take certain actions in accordance with the law. But it does not mean that we will follow Russia’s orders," Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk told journalists Friday.
"We will make a decision on this case, as well as other cases, based on our understanding of Polish state interests and justice, and not fulfill someone’s expectations," he added.
Zakayev has denounced militant Islamist ideology
Zakayev was a rebel field commander in Chechnya's first war of independence from Russia (1994-96), and served as international representative for the independent government of Ichkeria (Chechnya) during the second war, which began in 1999. Two years later he moved with his family to Britain, where he was granted political asylum in 2003.
Russian officials say the charges against Zakayev are "very serious," including kidnapping and murder during the first Chechen war, and aiding and abetting terrorism during the second – including allegedly approving a 2002 attack on a downtown Moscow theater that killed over 120 people.
But analysts say Zakayev, a silver-haired, soft-spoken former actor, is actually tame by today's standards. He's a secular, democratic Chechen nationalist who has denounced the militant Islamist ideology and terrorist tactics that have become the main threat to Russian rule over its turbulent north Caucasus region.
"Zakayev today has nothing to do with terrorism in the north Caucasus," says Pavel Salin, an expert with the independent Center for Political Trends in Moscow. "He didn't really have much to do with it in the past, but he remains a symbol of Chechen separatism and thus is a thorn in Russia's side and a spoiler of Moscow's relations with the West."
The new leader of Chechnya's insurgency, Doku Umarov, marked his own transition from nationalism to militant Islamism by abolishing self-declared independent Chechen republic in 2007 and declaring himself "emir" of the "north Caucasus Caliphate." Mr. Umarov has pronounced a death sentence on Zakayev, whom he regards as a traitor because he advocated a negotiated solution to Chechnya's status with Moscow.
"Russian authorities want to remove Zakayev from the field because it wants no one left to represent the idea of an independent Chechnya," says Andrei Soldatov, editor of Agentura.ru an online journal that reports on the security services. "Then there will be only one Chechnya left, the one headed by Ramzan Kadyrov," he says, referring to the pro-Moscow strongman who runs the republic today.
1,000 dead in terrorist attacks
Last year Russia declared victory in its long-running war to quash Chechnya's independence drive, and withdrew the bulk of its troops from the tiny republic leaving Mr. Kadyrov in control.
But some experts argue that Moscow's main motive is to show the Russian public that it can bring terrorists to justice. Over the past decade more than 1,000 Russians have died in terrorist attacks, many of them perpetrated by Chechens, including a 2004 school siege in Beslan that killed 330 people, half of them children, and twin suicide bombings on Moscow's crowded metro earlier this year that killed 37 people.