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

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.


Incomplete history
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.

He also rejects any link to the 2006 killing of reporter Anna Politkovskaya and to the deaths of several of his Chechen opponents in places as far flung as Moscow, Vienna and Dubai.

“Putin gave Chechnya to Kadyrov, and he does what he likes with it. It’s his property, nothing else,” says one experienced rights activist in Chechnya who asked not to be named.

Tanya Lokshina, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Moscow, says Chechnya is now “a state within a state”, where Kadyrov’s whims have replaced Russian law. “Ten years ago, Chechens were desperate to talk about what was happening. Now – silence. They are so scared. Since Natalya Estemirova was killed people ask: ‘If you can’t look after your own, what can you do for us?’”

On Chechnya's official television channel, the news is overwhelmingly positive and focussed on one man: Kadyrov opening a school, welcoming another celebrity to the republic (recent guests include Gerard Depardieu and Liz Hurley). The only time rights abuses are mentioned is when those who complain about them are denounced as western agents and enemies of the Chechen people and of Russia.

Kremlin aid
"They say independent groups should not work here. And the stories they tell about Chechnya's growing economy and falling unemployment are just that – stories," says the rights campaigner who asked to remain anonymous.

“Unemployment is still 70 or 80 per cent and Moscow pays for everything.”

The Kremlin gives Kadyrov great power – and money – in return for his pledge to keep order in Chechnya; it even turns a blind eye to his apparent introduction of elements of Islamic law. He has defended honour killings and backed polygamy and a strict dress code for women. “Virtue police” have even shot paintballs at women walking without headscarves in central Grozny.

“Chechnya is part of Russia, but you can’t go into some schools, universities and government offices without having your arms and hair covered,” says one female Chechen journalist. “Kadyrov is from a very conservative region and he thinks the rest of Chechnya should think like him . . . Unfortunately, lots of Chechen men feel the same way.”

Few Chechens openly criticise Kadyrov. In his Grozny office, the rights campaigner believes it will take generations for the consequences of the crimes committed by Kadyrov and his henchmen to play out.

“We still have blood revenge here, and many people hope they will eventually avenge a relative who was killed or tortured or kidnapped,” he says. “This is Chechen tradition. There is no escaping it. And it means the future looks very dark for us.”

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin is a contributor to The Irish Times from central and eastern Europe