Fear is foundation of brave new Grozny
Few openly criticise local leader Ramzan Kadyrov but many harbour hopes of revenge for the 1990s Chechen conflict
Dima Piskunov (left) and Alexei Matasov in the Grozny office of the Joint Mobile Group, which investigates alleged rights abuses in Chechnya. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin
The Heart of Chechnya mosque and new skyscrapers in central Grozny. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin
In the view from the 32nd-floor restaurant of the glitzy Hotel Grozny City, many Russians must see a kind of victory. Victory over the Chechen separatists who defeated Moscow’s troops in a 1994 to 1996 war, whose bombings, hijackings and murders terrorised Russia for a decade, and whose successors still regularly attack police and government targets in other parts of the north Caucasus.
Russia’s military returned to Chechnya in 1999 and reclaimed the republic after launching a pitiless missile and artillery bombardment that made Grozny, in the words of the UN, “the most destroyed city on Earth”. The wars in Chechnya killed some 200,000 civilians and turned Grozny into a wasteland that drew comparison with Stalingrad, Dresden and Hiroshima.
The West did nothing to stop the onslaught in Chechnya or to rein in Russian president Vladimir Putin, who took power in 2000. Now all the rubble has been removed, skyscrapers soar from repaved streets, fountains dance around one of Europe’s largest mosques and a 400m tower is about to be built.
You don’t have to look far for the men responsible for the transformation. All over Chechnya, Putin and local leader Ramzan Kadyrov gaze down from huge posters, along with images of Kadyrov’s late father, Akhmad, who was blown up by militants in 2004.
The official recent history of Chechnya credits these three with killing and co-opting the rebels, ending the war, and bringing stability and the hope of prosperity to a republic where slogans proclaiming “peace and unity” are commonplace. But the official history is incomplete.
“People see nice buildings here now, but torture and abduction are still widespread. Kadyrov’s people act with total impunity,” says Alexei Matasov, a human rights activist in Grozny.
“Chechens are getting on with their lives, but they do not know what will happen to them tomorrow,” adds his colleague, Dima Piskunov.
“They or their relatives could be falsely accused of helping or joining the rebels, or they could be kidnapped. One person who came to us said 99 per cent of people hate Kadyrov, and the rest are his relatives.”
Matasov and Piskunov are members of the Joint Mobile Group (JMG) of activists and legal experts from Russia, who visit Chechnya for a month at a time to investigate alleged rights abuses and gather evidence; in 2011, the group won the Front Line Defenders award from the Irish human rights body of the same name.
The JMG was formed in 2009, after the murder of renowned Chechen rights campaigner Natalya Estemirova underlined the perils of such work. In the face of accusations from critics, Kadyrov denied having a hand in her murder.