How Moscow's hard man changed the face of Grozny

Rusiko Amirejibi-Mullen r.amirejibi-mullen at
Thu Sep 11 11:39:43 UTC 2008
How Moscow's hard man changed the face of Grozny
By Mary Dejevsky in Grozny
Thursday, 11 September 2008

As recently as three years ago, Chechnya was racked by a vicious,  
chaotic war. Just two years ago, 90 per cent of its capital, Grozny,  
lay in ruins. You may remember the photos of devastation, the skeletal  
remains of public buildings, homes seemingly turned inside out, and  
students heroically pursuing their studies in scorched lecture rooms.

Now, the centre of Grozny is a completely new city. Almost every trace  
of war has been erased; the only evidence of the conflicts that tore  
the heart out of the city are fenced-off blocks razed to the ground  
and awaiting new development. It is almost possible to pretend that  
more than 10 years and two wars never happened. The new focus combines  
the two unifying themes of post-war Chechnya: moderate Islam and  
Akhmad Kadyrov, the Chechen President assassinated in 2004 and father  
of the current President, Ramzan Kadyrov.

This new identity is reflected in a giant mosque, extolled as the  
largest in Europe. Chechnya's frenetic building programme is a welcome  
source of employment. And there is a third item on the Grozny tourist  
trail: the Russian Orthodox church of the Archangel Michael. More than  
100 years old, and under a conservation order, it has been rebuilt  
from scratch.

By day the streets may be quiet, but this is Ramadan. The traffic jams  
grow as dusk approaches. Cafes and restaurants open up and the city  
starts to spring into ? normal ? life. I saw no woman without a  
headscarf, an unusual site in somewhere that used to be in the secular  
Soviet Union, but none with her face covered either.

With the fighting that marked much of Vladimir Putin's presidency  
consigned to the past, the Russian authorities felt confident enough  
about security yesterday to fly in a group of 30 or so Western  
Russia-watchers for an afternoon of sightseeing and a face-to-face  
meeting at his sprawling estate, with the 31-year-old ? soon to be 32  
? President, Mr Kadyrov.

Oil-rich Chechnya has had an appearance of calm pretty much since the  
appointment of Mr Kadyrov in March 2007, on the say-so of President  
Putin. The region, designated a republic within the Russian  
Federation, was then left largely to its own devices, with Moscow's  
single proviso being that it retained control of the natural  
resources. Otherwise, Mr Kadyrov has had a free rein to run the place  
as his own fiefdom, which included pursuing his own vendettas,  
tracking down wartime enemies and, it is alleged, creaming off  
millions from the lucrative reconstruction contracts.

Chechnya has independence in all but name, a solution that its  
war-weary people seem to find acceptable. This will be tested on 12  
October, when elections will be held for the Chechen parliament. But  
Mr Kadyrov has been none too fussy about the methods he uses to keep  
order, and Moscow has pumped in money, whereas under the former  
president, Aslan Maskhadov, Chechnya became a lawless vortex of rival  

The recent war in Georgia, however, could foreshadow an end to this  
hitherto tolerable state of affairs ? and Moscow knows this. Which may  
be why it took the trouble to show its foreign visitors how far  
Chechnya has left war behind. At a 90-minute audience with Mr Kadyrov  
at his estate outside Grozny yesterday, the President categorically  
rejected the idea that independence for South Ossetia and Abkhazia  
would reignite the separatist movement in Chechnya. Speaking slowly  
for emphasis, he said: "For Chechnya, this is neither a valid nor a  
current issue."

He made a contradictory impression: callow and impetuous, while also  
battle-hardened, authoritative and, at times, soft. Scion of a  
religious family, his grandfather was mufti of Grozny, and references  
to Islam punctuate his speech. But he also speaks almost in one breath  
of his Russian college education, his past with "an automatic in my  
hand", and how he sees himself today and in the future "as a loyal  
servant of my people".

Chechnya may be a unique case, as Russia insists, but such issues as  
self-determination for ethnic minorities, national sovereignty and  
territorial integrity present dilemmas to any government and  
particular dilemmas for Russia, less than 20 years after the collapse  
of the Soviet Union.

Earlier this year, Russia declined to recognise Kosovo. This was  
partly because its ally Serbia objected so strongly, but it was also  
because of the precedent its approval might set for Chechnya. Russia's  
recent conflict with Georgia left Moscow's policy tied in knots. Its  
recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states ?  
which, it stressed set no precedent ? sits uncomfortably with its  
strictures about Kosovo.

Peace and economic recovery seem to be keeping separatist yearnings at  
bay. But if the improvements in daily life lag, independence could  
soon exercise its attraction ? and this time the separatists have a  
precedent they can throw back in Russia's face.

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