How Moscow's hard man changed the face of Grozny
r.amirejibi-mullen at qmul.ac.uk
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
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
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.
More information about the Lgpolicy-list