Credit: OCCRP / Edin Pasovic

The Man With Two Faces

Tajikistan is one of the world’s most repressive countries — and not just at home. In recent years, its exiled dissidents have faced extradition, kidnapping, and forcible return from the many countries they now call home.

That’s why they need friends: Both in Russia, where many of them live, and in Europe.

In the last few years, one of the closest has been Nikolai Nikolaev, 60, a Russian citizen who has frequently appeared at gatherings of the Tajikistani opposition, provided its members with legal representation, and, they say, promised to connect them to high-level officials in the Russian security services.

But on at least three occasions, Tajikistani dissidents have met terrible fates while working with Nikolaev — in two cases, very shortly after their last meetings with him. Several prominent members of the diaspora now accuse him of selling them out.

The most recent incident took place this February. That month, Sharofiddin Gadoev, a former businessman who had become an increasingly prominent opposition leader, disappeared in Moscow just minutes after meeting with Nikolaev.

The very next morning, he turned up in Tajikistan, in the custody of the country’s security services. In a video he later said he had been forced to record, he repents opposing the government and accepts his “punishment” as deserved.

Under international pressure, Gadoev was allowed to return to the Netherlands. He says Nikolaev had played the role of a middleman in arranging his trip to Moscow and helped him arrange some of his meetings there. Gadoev now believes he had been betrayed, describing Nikolaev as a “traitor” who had gained his trust in part because he had claimed to work for the Russian security services, who were allegedly interested in helping the Tajikistani opposition movement gain a foothold among the diaspora in Russia.

While investigating Gadoev’s ordeal, OCCRP found that he wasn’t the only one. Another Tajikistani opposition leader was assaulted and forcibly taken from Moscow to Tajikistan while working with Nikolaev. And a prominent dissident who featured in an earlier OCCRP investigation, and also had a working relationship with Nikolaev, was murdered in Istanbul.

Nikolaev also tried to approach the best-known Tajikistani opposition leader of all. Muhiddin Kabiri is chairman of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, which once held seats in the country’s parliament but has since been hounded into exile. For Kabiri, who rejected Nikolaev’s offers of assistance, the pattern is clear. “All the Tajik opposition members who have contacted him are either killed or in prison,” he says.

In an interview with OCCRP, Nikolaev categorically denied the Tajiks’ accusations, citing Gadoev’s continued communication with him after his release. “What kind of evidence do these gentlemen offer? Why would Gadoev [continue to] collaborate with me? Why would others … Who’s forcing them?”

Nikolaev also denied promising any meetings with high-level Russian officials, saying that he had only offered to connect the Tajikistani dissidents to political scientists and other specialists who could help them advance their political goals.

Reporters’ questions regarding his possible connections to Russian security services were met with sarcasm: “You’re trying to say that I go to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin?” he said. “No, I don’t go to him, really. And he doesn’t know me, unfortunately. Though maybe that would be flattering.”

“Guys, I’m not a political prostitute,” Nikolaev said.

But there are other indications that he’s not all that he seems.

In public, Nikolaev appears to be a sharp critic of President Vladimir Putin’s government. He often tweets about the Russian authorities’ failures and has collaborated with prominent Putin opponents like Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Nikolaev’s son Ilya ran for the Russian parliament as an opposition candidate. And a think tank he operated in Nizhny Novgorod was even listed as a “foreign agent” after it received a grant from the U.S. State Department.

On the other hand, Nikolaev appears to be comfortable playing both sides. He has set up a pro-Putin political party and worked for the presidential campaign of a ‘spoiler’ opposition candidate in the 2018 presidential election.

During the Soviet era, Nikolaev had a long stint with the police, reaching a senior rank. And an episode in his native Nizhny Novgorod in 2017 suggests that he may have acted as a kind of informal enforcer for local tax authorities.

A Well-Connected New Friend

Gadoev remembers first meeting Nikolaev in Tajikistan in 2012. At the time, he was working with his uncle Umarali Kuvvatov, a wealthy entrepreneur whose oil trading company, Faroz, would soon become a major conglomerate. But Kuvvatov would be in no place to benefit. His business partner — the president’s son-in-law — would soon take his company away from him and drive him out of the country.

In an attempt to save himself and his business, and thinking about entering the political arena, Kuvvatov turned to Russia, whose powerful officials he hoped could offer support.

Soon, Gadoev says, a person he would not name came to Tajikistan and introduced him and his uncle to the man who would be their main point of contact with the Russian security apparatus. This was Nikolaev.

A few months after that meeting, Kuvvatov would find himself under increasing pressure from law enforcement, and he and Gadoev decided to leave Tajikistan. They fled to Moscow, where they found Nikolaev to be a helpful ally.

From the Russian capital, Kuvvatov stepped up his political activity. He created Group24, an opposition movement that grew popular among the country’s Tajik labor migrants, and criticized Rahmon’s regime on a satellite TV channel.

Kuvvatov and his nephew Gadoev stayed close, living in the same Moscow apartment and working on their new political movement out of an office Kuvvatov rented from Nikolaev.

But the men weren’t as safe as they thought. On Dec. 23, 2012, Kuvvatov left Moscow on a flight to Dubai. As he tried to board a plane to Brussels, he was detained in response to an Interpol “red notice” filed by Tajikistan.

Credit: Nikolai Nikolaev Nikolaev and Kuvvatov in Dubai.

Once again, Nikolaev, who was travelling with him, proved useful. He represented Kuvvatov in the Dubai courts, successfully preventing him from being extradited. Kuvvatov was free, but he never returned to Moscow. Months later, he was murdered in Istanbul in front of his terrified children and wife — who is sure that the Tajikistani government was behind his death.

Gadoev, who had remained in Moscow, soon came under pressure himself. One day, he says, Nikolaev came to him with a man he believed to be a prosecutor. He was told he had been accused of smuggling and forgery, and that the Prosecutor General’s Office of Tajikistan had requested his extradition.

“We can no longer protect you on Russian territory,” he recalls being told.

Nikolaev and the other man explained that, while Gadoev had a circle of friends, another group of “generals” was ready to hand him over. The two men then helped him escape from Russia. “‘We will open a corridor for you, and you will be able to fly to Europe,’” they told him.

By the end of March 2013, he had reached Finland. But even then, Gadoev didn’t feel safe. Spending years in hiding and moving almost monthly left him feeling “haunted,” he said. On one occasion, in Spain, he thought someone had been sent to kill him. In the end, he settled in the Netherlands, where he could continue his opposition activities more openly.

OCCRP first spoke with Gadoev in 2017 while preparing Money by Marriage, an investigative project about the Tajikistani president’s son-in-law and his growing business empire. By then, Gadoev’s uncle was dead. The younger man was anxious, setting up a meeting with a reporter in a small town and changing his telephone number immediately afterward.

Reporters also spoke with Nikolaev, whom they understood to be Gadoev and Kuvvatov’s legal representative and who kept an archive that may have included documents about their former business in Tajikistan. He was open and communicative, but despite promises to provide the documents, he repeatedly dodged reporters’ requests.

At about the time that OCCRP’s project was published in June 2018, Gadoev says, Nikolaev started coming to Europe and meeting with Tajikistani opposition leaders.

Russia is home to more than 2 million Tajikistani migrants, who make up nearly half of the Central Asian country’s workforce. Nikolaev, the Tajiks say, suggested that his connections with senior Russian officials could help them advance their opposition movement among this group.

This was when Nikolaev invited Gadoev to Russia. According to a statement a relative of Gadoev’s made to the Dutch police, Nikolaev arranged a visa for Gadoev and offered to introduce him to people close to Nikolai Patrushev, a former director of the FSB and now head of the Security Council, an advisory body whose members are appointed and accountable directly to President Putin.

Knowing that other opposition leaders had disappeared from Russia, Gadoev weighed this risky endeavor. He agreed to go in November 2018, and as a small measure of protection, filmed a message at his home in a small Dutch town days before leaving.

“You will see this video in the event that they kill me or kidnap me,” he said. “Or if I disappear without a trace.”

But Gadoev’s one-day trip to Moscow went well, and seemed to be organized at a high level. He says he was welcomed at the airport and escorted past the border guards through a special security corridor, though he did receive a stamp in his passport. Later, he says he met with Patrushev, just as Nikolaev had promised. The meeting took place at a dacha outside Moscow, where the senior official appeared in informal clothing. For about an hour, Gadoev says, he and Patrushev discussed their mutual dissatisfaction with the Tajikistani government and the possibility of mobilizing the Tajikistani diaspora in Russia against it.

Patrushev said that Russia was worried about the drug trade allegedly carried out by President Rahmon and his family. For his part, Gadoev said he hoped for a peaceful transfer of power in his home country.

The meeting ended, Gadoev says, with an agreement to bring these matters to Putin himself after some discussion with other agencies, and with a guarantee of Gadoev’s safety on future trips to Russia. A man named Maxim, who appeared to be Patrushev’s assistant, was introduced as the person who would handle the technical details. That evening, Gadoev, Maxim, and Nikolaev had dinner together and went for a walk by the Kremlin walls.

🔗Gadoev’s conversation with Nikolaev

Nikolaev: “Now we have to try to understand where the leak happened.”

Gadoev: “I’m sorry, there is no leak. It [the kidnapping] was planned.”

Nikolaev: “Why, please explain.”

Gadoev: “I was under surveillance for a long time…”

Nikolaev: “It’s hard for me to understand this. What are we going to do?”

Gadoev: “I’m preparing documents and will go to court.”

Nikolaev: “I mean, what are you and I going to do? Are we going to continue our dialogue?”

Gadoev: “What dialogue? You betrayed me!”

When he returned to the Netherlands, Gadoev had further meetings arranged and was hopeful that his project was moving forward.

On Feb. 13, Gadoev returned to Moscow. This time, the arrangements appeared to have taken place at an even higher level. Unusually, he says, he received his Russian visa in just one day — and when he arrived at the airport, a representative of the FSB was among those who met him. His passport was not stamped this time, and when he arrived at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, he found that his reservation had been made in someone else’s name. Essentially, his name was not officially recorded anywhere in Russia after his arrival.

That evening he again met Maxim and had dinner with him at the same restaurant as before, noticing that even the waiter who served them was the same. He later texted his family to reassure them that he was safe.

On the next day, Gadoev disappeared. After the news emerged, OCCRP reached out to Nikolaev, the last person who had seen him in Moscow. Nikolaev told reporters he had met Gadoev at the Crowne Plaza the same afternoon he was taken.

“There should have been one more meeting. He went to it and never returned,” Nikolaev first told OCCRP. In a more recent interview, he said he didn’t know the details of Gadoev’s abduction, didn’t know Maxim, and only learned about what happened afterwards.

But in text messages with a relative of Gadoev’s on the night of the abduction which were provided to OCCRP, Nikolaev does not dispute that his “people” had been involved. “They drove him to the meeting,” he writes. “They were not present at the meeting. Then there’s a gap. Now we’re trying to figure out what happened next,” he writes.

[Read Gadoev’s story about his kidnapping — and what happened to him in Tajikistan.]

There is further evidence that Nikolaev knew more about the kidnapping than he was willing to tell reporters. After escaping Tajikistan and being returned to the Netherlands, Gadoev spoke with Nikolaev on the phone. In the conversation, a recording of which was provided to OCCRP, Gadoev indignantly demanded the return of his passport and bank card, which he says were kept by the “Russian side.”

“Nikolaev is just a traitor, because he misled us,” Gadoev now says, speculating that his former associate was following orders from a higher level. “I think that Nikolaev is just doing his job. He is given an order — he acts. He is just a technical person.”

Gadoev says the Tajikistani regime and Nikolaev were really after someone else: Kabiri, the Islamic Renaissance Party leader. It was only after Kabiri rejected Nikolaev’s offers, he says, that they went after him.

“They wanted me along with Muhiddin Kabiri,” Gadoev said. “When it became clear that Muhiddin would not come, they decided, ‘OK, then we will take Gadoev.’”

An Offer He Could Refuse

Kabiri is among Tajikistani President Emomali Rahmon’s top enemies — and targets. At home, he was one of the country’s most prominent opposition leaders, one of just two who ever sat in parliament under President Rahmon. But in 2015, he was forced to flee after the authorities designated the party an extremist organization. Now living in exile, he told OCCRP he had been approached by Nikolaev, but had refused his help.

In July 2018, the Tajik opposition held a conference in Dortmund, Germany. The date was timed to mark the 21-year anniversary of the peace treaty that ended the country’s brutal post-independence civil war. Though the treaty envisioned a permanent role for opposition figures in Tajikistan’s government, President Rahmon spent the years that followed pushing them out of power.

As an invited speaker at the Dortmund event, Nikolaev harshly criticized Rahmon’s regime and also made a bold promise: “Russia will support any leader if he expresses the will of the people.”

Hours later, he made a more private proposal. At a dinner with Tajikistani opposition figures, seated next to Kabiri, Nikolaev made his move.

“There’s interest in the Tajik opposition from the Russian authorities,” Kabiri remembers Nikolaev saying. “There is a huge interest in you.”

“Without Russia, achieving something in Tajikistan is very difficult,” Nikolaev said. “I and those who work with me are ready. I have pretty good connections in Russia. We are ready to create the conditions for you [to be able to operate there].”

Kabiri even recalls Nikolaev hinting at possible military support, referring to Russia’s 7,000-strong armed force in the country. “Russia’s largest military contingent is in Tajikistan,” he said. “And they are capable of performing major actions in half an hour.”

It seemed too good to be true, Kabiri says, so he declined Nikolaev’s offer, citing Tajikistani activists who had disappeared, been abducted, or faced assassination attempts while trying to find safety in Russia. “I realized that [the Russians] just wanted to lure the [Tajik] opposition leaders to Moscow,” he says.

For his part, Nikolaev acknowledges that the conversation took place, but rejects Kabiri’s recollection that he had offered him high-level meetings. “I don’t even want to comment about such claims. Where am I and where are the Russian authorities?”

But according to Kabiri, he and Nikolaev also met on two other occasions that fall in Warsaw. As confirmed by Muhamadjin Kabirov, an assistant of Kabiri’s who took notes, Nikolaev offered to arrange a meeting with Igor Ivanov, Russia’s former foreign minister and former head of the Security Council. He also named a price for his services: About 200,000 euros.

Kabiri declined his offers and remained safely out of reach of the Tajik authorities. Some others did not.

The Other Disappeared Tajik Opposition Leaders

One man Nikolaev had provided with legal representation and other assistance was Maksud Ibragimov, the leader of a Tajikistani youth opposition group active in Russia who frequently travelled around the country to speak about the oppressive conditions in his homeland.

In October 2014, he was arrested by Russian police at Tajikistan’s request, but was soon released because he held a Russian passport.

Credit: Facebook, Sarafzodi Olamafruz Maksud Ibragimov (middle).

A few months later, he was stabbed and shot at by unidentified attackers while returning home from a meeting with Nikolaev. After recovering in the hospital, Ibragimov was then abducted by unknown men who dragged him to the airport, put him into the baggage hold of an airplane, and flew him to Tajikistan. For months, his whereabouts were unknown — but it later emerged that he had been sentenced to 17 years in prison.

In response to questions about his involvement in the kidnapping, Nikolaev insisted that he had been protecting Ibragimov.

“We were offering him a special security service and an apartment where he could hide from the Tajik authorities,” Nikolaev said. “Unfortunately he didn’t follow our advice and left the apartment.”

Nikolaev also claims to still be in touch with the imprisoned Ibrahimov. “I talk to him about once a week, whenever he can.”

However, Nikolaev’s comments contradict his earlier version of the story. As reported by several news outlets, he said at the time that Ibrahimov had been dragged out of the apartment “despite the resistance of his guards,” rather than having left it on his own.

Ekhson Odinaev was another charismatic young Tajik dissident working in Russia. But in May 2015, the popular activist with Kuvvatov’s Group24 movement disappeared and has never been seen since.

Reporters spoke with Ekhson’s brother Vaisiddin Odinaev, who said that, though his vanished brother didn’t formally collaborate with Nikolaev, the two men saw each other frequently in the Group24 office, which Kuvvatov was renting from Nikolaev. (Ekhson also posted friendly photos of Nikolaev on his Facebook account.)

Vaisiddin says the Russian police never took his brother’s disappearance seriously, and soon closed the case. So in 2015, he turned to Nikolaev for help.

In Vaisiddin’s recollection, Nikolaev explained that he did have high-level connections, but asked him for money and cooperation in exchange for information about his missing brother. He was particularly interested in the activities of the Tajik migrant community in Moscow. “I’m asking you to help us if we help you,” Vaisiddin recalls Nikolaev telling him.

Vaisiddin had been willing to pay, but drew the line at providing information about his fellow Tajiks.

“The fact that he wanted financial gain, I understand, I would have paid him. But the fact that he brought up the second part — information — was unacceptable for me,” Vaisiddin Odinaev says.

Nikolaev’s version of the meeting is very different. For one, he seemed to barely remember it, recalling only that “some relatives” of Ekhson Odinaev had asked him for help, and that he had suggested they go to the police.

“What kind of help [could I offer]?” he said. “I’m not a private detective agency and not an all-powerful person who can pick up the phone and call the head of the FSB or the Interior Ministry. It’s just foolishness, really.”

Politics at Home

Even as some members of the Tajikistani opposition began to grow increasingly suspicious of Nikolaev, he was integrating himself into a separate circle of opposition activists: Russians opposed to President Vladimir Putin.

In February 2017, Nikolaev and his son Ilya helped organize a march in memory of Boris Nemtsov, a Russian opposition politician who had been killed right under the Kremlin walls two years earlier.

That April, father and son attended an event hosted by another prominent Russian opposition leader, former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, with whom Nikolaev posted a photo on his Instagram account.

An ardent enemy of Putin who now lives in London, Khodorkovsky created Open Russia, a non-profit organization that supports political prisoners and prepares activists to participate in municipal elections in the Russian regions. His son Ilya was Open Russia’s head in Nizhny Novgorod, while his father was deputy head in the same branch.

As an Open Russia activist, Nikolaev has spoken out against the construction of elite apartments on the outskirts of the Pochainsky ravine, a place in Nizhny Novgorod where victims of the post-revolutionary “Red Terror” were shot and buried in the 1920s.

Nikolaev also continues to appear in other opposition groups and events, from the Free Russia opposition forum in Estonia and protests against pension reforms to the Nizhny Novgorod branch of United CIvil Front, an opposition organization founded by chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov.

Nikolaev has also run a think tank in Nizhny Novgorod called the Institute of Forecasting and Resolving Political Conflicts that focused on migration and geopolitics. The organization received a grant from the U.S. State Department and was declared a “foreign agent,” a restriction applied to organizations that receive funds from abroad. Though the think tank has been officially shut down, Nikolaev says it still operates on a “de facto” level.

The Other Side

Other elements of Nikolaev’s background, as well as some of his more recent activities, paint a picture at odds with this “oppositional” image.

After attending an Interior Ministry high school intended for future law enforcement officers in the Soviet period (a period from which he posted photos on his Instagram account), he appears to have worked for 15 years as a police officer, reaching the position of deputy head of operations for the Tyumen region. Nikolaev has also worked as head of a regional department of the Ministry of Labor that was responsible for settling labor disputes.

Since at least 2007, he has been involved with the Green Party, a small political party that was shown to have paid people — including an undercover reporter — to attend a pro-Putin political rally. Though not formally connected with the ruling United Russia party, the Green Party openly supports the government’s environmental policy and describes itself as a “constructive and moderately reformist” force. In the context of Russian politics, this means that the party is part of the “loyal opposition” and does not present any real challenge to the Putin regime. Nikolaev has since joined the party’s board, and due to a technical change in 2012, he was registered as one of its founders.

Nikolaev was also involved in the electoral campaign of Ksenia Sobchak, a socialite who controversially ran for the Russian presidency as an allegedly oppositional candidate in 2018. Sobchak is viewed by many Putin opponents as a ‘spoiler’ candidate who was meant only to be a token opponent. In the election, Nikolaev acted as a representative for Sobchak, while his son headed her Nizhny Novgorod headquarters.

Credit: Nikolaev with his son Ilya (in the middle) as campaign staff members at a meeting with Ksenia Sobchak in Nizhny Novgorod.

Nikolaev did not reply to follow-up questions about his political activities in Russia.

Another surprising side of Nikolaev is his alleged role as an intermediary between local tax authorities and a business owner who claims they tried to extort him.

In a lengthy 2017 Facebook post, a Nizhny Novgorod businessman named Andrei Koleganov relates how his construction company was pressured by tax authorities to pay an unexpected VAT fine. In his post, Koleganov claims that Nikolaev called Koleganov out of the blue and suggested he could act as a “mediator.” Somehow, Nikolaev knew the details of the tax claim against him, and suggested that he could “resolve the issue.” In Russia, it is common for agencies asking for a bribe to use a trusted third party to make the demand. In essence, Koleganov’s story paints Nikolaev as a kind of unofficial enforcer: Someone well-connected with a local tax authority and empowered to do business on their behalf.

Surprisingly, Nikolaev himself responded to the post in a tone that does not fit well the image of a Russian opposition figure. “For such assumptions, respected Mr. Koleganov,” he writes, “you could get your face smashed in.” While laughing off the claims — and suggesting that the option of suing for libel still remained open — Nikolaev did not deny his involvement. “Thanks for the PR,” he added sarcastically.

This specific episode could not be independently verified, and Koleganov declined to comment on the incident beyond confirming that his post had been accurate and saying his experience with Nikolaev was “purely negative.” The broader elements of the story — that Koleganov’s company faced a tax inspection, was forced to pay a fee, and was shut down — are confirmed by open records. Koleganov’s company was found guilty of tax evasion, though he got the fine reduced on appeal.

In response to reporters’ questions, Nikolaev dismissed Koleganov’s story as the complaints of a man who had been justly punished for cheating a business partner, whom Nikolaev said his law firm represented. “If this was extortion of bribes, or fraud, then Mr. Koleganov should have caught me red-handed,” he said. “Why am I not in prison?”

With additional reporting by Christo Grozev of Bellingcat and Roman Dobrokhotov of The Insider. (Read the Insider’s version of this investigation).

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