x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The hollow resurrection of Chechnya

After the naming of two Chechens as suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings has put it back on the world's front pages, Chechnya appears almost miraculously reborn.

Members of a youth club supporting former Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrov during a rally in the centre of the Chechen capital Grozny.
Members of a youth club supporting former Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrov during a rally in the centre of the Chechen capital Grozny.

GROZNY, RUSSIA // When it was last in the international spotlight, Chechnya was in ruins, its capital Grozny reduced to dust by the deadliest artillery and air onslaught in Europe since the Second World War.

Today, when the naming of two Chechens as suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings has put it back on the world's front pages, Chechnya appears almost miraculously reborn.

The streets have been rebuilt. Walls riddled with bullet holes are long gone. New high rise buildings soar into the sky. Spotless playgrounds are packed with children. A giant marble mosque glimmers in the night.

Yet, scratch the surface and the miracle is less impressive than it seems. Behind closed doors, people speak of a warped and oppressive place, run by a Kremlin-imposed leader through fear.

Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev's ethnic homeland, a mainly Muslim province that saw centuries of war and repression, no longer threatens to secede from Russia. But it has become breeding ground for a form of militant Islam whose adherents have spread violence to other parts of Russia, and may have inspired the radicalisation of the Boston bombers.

"It may look like it's stable and peaceful but it's really not the case," said a human rights campaigner, who, like others critical of the Moscow-backed Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, asked that her name not be used.

There are still fragmented groups of rebel fighters in the mountains, the activist said. "And there are young people in the villages who go out and join them, who take food to the mountains."

Sushi, iPhones and Islam

Moscow has poured billions of roubles into Chechnya to rebuild it. It boasts that there is no longer any trace of the separatist insurgency that humiliated the Russian army in battles in the 1990s.

On top of what was once the rubble of Grozny's central Minutka Square, where an armoured column of Russian forces was nearly wiped out in street fighting in January 1995, there are now slick cafes where young men in leather jackets and women in headscarves eat sushi and tap on their iPhones.

Mr Kadyrov, 36, a former rebel, peers down from billboards and out from TV newscasts. A red neon slogan declares "Ramzan, thank you for Grozny!"

Mr Kadyrov cultivates an image as a devout Muslim and family man, fond of posting snapshots on Instagram.

He loves a good party, especially when he is the guest of honour. In 2011 he hired singer Seal and Hollywood stars Jean-Claude Van Damme and Hilary Swank to appear at his birthday jubilee. After human rights groups complained, Swank apologised, fired her manager and gave her six-figure fee to charity.

Mr Kadyrov and his authorities deny they are involved in abuse, murders or disappearances. But his critics have a long history of dying in unsolved murders or disappearing without a trace.

Human rights groups have linked Mr Kadyrov to the murders of Russian opposition-minded journalist Anna Politkovskaya, Chechen exiles in Austria and Turkey, and rival Chechen clan chiefs shot dead in Dubai and Moscow, all cases in which he denies involvement.

His loyalty can be embarrassing even for the Kremlin. At the last elections, President Vladimir Putin and his ruling United Russia party won more than 99 per cent of Chechnya's vote, with Soviet-style turnout more than 99 per cent.

Grozny's central thoroughfare is now named after Mr Putin.

"What's happening here is absurd. It's George Orwell, 1984," said a dissident. "Nothing is going to change here any time soon. Chechen spring? Forget about it."

Golden chandelier

In Grozny, passersby freeze and stare with a mixture of fear and awe when Mr Kadyrov's noisy motorcade glides through the city.

His closest allies drive luxury sedans with tinted windows and distinctive "KRA" number plates - his initials: "Kadyrov, Ramzan Akhmatovich".

Mr Kadyrov's father Akhmad Kadyrov was a former rebel mufti who was put in charge of Chechnya by Mr Putin and ruled it until he was assassinated in 2004. A museum to the elder Kadyrov sports Russia's biggest chandelier, weighing 1.5 tonnes and containing 22kg of gold.

Perhaps in an attempt to limit the influence of Islamic rebels by co-opting religion, Mr Kadyrov has banned alcohol and gambling, and promoted polygamy and headscarves for women. A few years ago, his supporters were seen firing paintball guns at women whose clothes were deemed insufficiently modest.

Yet Mr Kadyrov's promotion of Islam has not dimmed the appeal of the radical version espoused by fighters led by Doku Umarov, a Chechen former pro-independence guerrilla commander who leads an Islamist revolt focused mainly on neighbouring Dagestan.

"When they tell us that only this official form of Islam is allowed, obviously everyone is going to question it," said the rights campaigner. "People don't like to be lectured on how to be faithful."

Outside Grozny, Chechens survive off small-scale agriculture in villages scattered across a fertile belt between the capital and the towering, snow-capped Caucasus Mountains to the south.

"People live off farming. They eat what they grow," said Yusup, a resident in the mountain village of Itum-Kale perched in a steep river valley near Chechnya's border with Georgia. "It's beautiful here but there is no work for young people."

Others dream of leaving.

Rukiyat Arsayeva went to Grozny to apply for a passport in the hope of travelling to Europe. She said she was seeking medical help for her two daughters.

One, now 14, was a toddler when she was wounded in the abdomen by a Russian air strike. The other, now 20, was made deaf as a child by a missile blast.

Their mother said she feared the Boston bombings would make it harder for Chechens to get visas to escape to the West.

"Chechens are now going to be seen as bad people. We are not terrorists. After what happened I don't know what kind of treatment to expect there," she said, clutching her paperwork on a dusty street outside the passport office.

"What happened in Boston is very bad. I am a small person. All I want is to help my children."