Grozny, the capital city of the Russian Republic of Chechnya, is eerily clean.
Downtown, the central avenues are neatly divided by grassy medians and flanked by wide sidewalks. Trim little trees have been planted in careful rows. Most of the buildings are new: no cracked windows, no crumbling edifices, no grime accumulating under the eaves.
This is the look of a city unsullied by history: pleasant, efficient, even insipid.
But Grozny does have a history -- one that is long, tumultuous and very bloody. Although fresh paint covers the old scars in Chechnya’s seat of government, an enduring strain of unrest still bubbles beneath the surface.
Grozny is best remembered for the headlines it grabbed during the 1990s. Back then, it was the besieged capital of a breakaway region of the newly-formed Russian Federation, constantly at war with Kremlin forces. Chechen fighters were determined, but Russian troops were more numerous and better-equipped.
By the dawn of the new millenium, Grozny was utterly destroyed.
Since then, Russian rubles have financed incredible new growth in the city center. However, they have done far less to raise standards of living throughout Chechnya. After years of war, displacement is still rife and unemployment is rampant. Most estimates place about 80 percent of the republic’s 1.27 million people below the poverty line.
Chechnya has long sought independence from Russia, and this precipitated the two wars that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Those clashes left a death toll of about 90,000 -- the exact number is disputed. Many of those who died were civilians.
Moscow’s focus has been squarely on Grozny since the wars ended; it spent hugely to fund a vigorous reconstruction that began in 2002 and still continues. (It’s not all about charity; Chechnya is estimated to have reserves of 3 billion cubic meters of natural gas and 60 million tons of oil, resources that could be useful to Russia but remain largely undeveloped.)
Today, Grozny’s standout feature is a giant mosque, one of the largest in Europe. It may seem an odd fixture for Russia, where Orthodox Christianity is the dominant religion. But like other Russian republics in the volatile Northern Caucasus region, Chechnya is home to a majority Sunni Muslim population.
Under the rule of current Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, Islam has played an increasingly strong role in Chechen society. Women are required by law to wear veils. Gambling is banned, and the sale of alcohol is limited.
But Kadyrov himself looks more like an American frat boy than an Islamist politician. He’s 35 years old and could pass for younger. During public appearances, he can be a bit of a ham. He dresses well and smiles often.
His face is plastered on buildings and billboards all over Grozny. Voice of America once asked him why this was so, and he laughed. “People like to look at pictures of a handsome, nice young man,” he said.
Kadyrov has always been young for his job. He was only 16 when he took command of a group of Muslim rebels during Chechnya’s first post-Soviet war. He and his father, Akhmad, were leaders in the Chechens’ fight against Russian domination. But when the second war began to wind down, with the Kremlin winning, father and son both switched their allegiance to Moscow.
The elder Kadyrov took control of the Chechen government in 2002, behaving essentially like a Kremlin puppet. He was assassinated in 2004, and his son Ramzan was appointed president in 2007, shortly after he had reached the minimum age of 30.
Five years later, Grozny is glittering, and Chechnya’s ties to Russia are still strong.
As if to show off how far his country has come, Kadyrov hosted a massive celebration in Grozny on Oct. 5, 2011. He swore it was an event to mark the 193rd anniversary of the founding of the city, not a party for his 35th birthday. (The dates happened to coincide.)
The ceremony was lavish, to say the least. Performances took place on a massive platform that floated on Grozny’s Sunzha River. Magnificent fireworks exploded above a series of dancers in elaborate costumes. At one point, a constellation of 42 acrobats, suspended on wires and held aloft by a crane, cavorted in synchronicity as spotlights flashed around them. Kadyrov himself even stepped up to dance in front of the massive audience. He was awkward but charismatic; the people stood and cheered.
Western celebrities were flown in to witness the spectacle, including American singer Seal and Belgian martial artist turned Hollywood star Jean-Claude Van Damme. American actress Hilary Swank was there, too; she stepped onstage to wish the president a happy birthday.
It’s an appearance she has come to regret.
Terror Versus Terror
Kadyrov’s Western guests learned too late that behind his jovial ostentation, the president of Chechnya is an autocrat known to Western human rights advocates for his abuses. International watchdog organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) lambasted Swank after her appearance.
“Ramzan Kadyrov is linked to a grim record of abuse,” said Hugh Williamson, HRW's Europe and Central Asia director, in a report immediately following the Grozny celebration. “When stars get paid to party with him, it trivializes the suffering of countless victims of human rights abuses.”
The report went on to explain that Kadyrov “presides over law enforcement and security agencies that have been implicated in abductions, torture and executions of those suspected of involvement in the Islamist insurgency in Chechnya. He has condoned collective punishment such as house burnings against alleged collaborators, including family members of suspected insurgents.”
Those “insurgents” are the people who still agitate for Chechnya’s independence from Russia. They are not satisfied with a president so closely bound to the Kremlin; they have not forgotten that independence was the ultimate goal of those two recent wars.
Kadyrov has been working to defeat these insurgents over the past five years. Some were incarcerated, some suffered government-condoned violence, and some have disappeared without a trace.
But this is not a story of good versus authoritarian evil -- murderous villains exist on both sides of the Chechen struggle. A great many of Chechnya’s separatist activists have resorted to terrorism; the presence of Islamist militancy in their midst has also been a justification for Kadyrov -- once a militant rebel himself -- to clamp down hard on them and, by extension, on any dissent.
Violent incidents perpetrated by insurgents, from beatings to kidnappings to suicide bombings, surged precipitously between 2008 and 2010. Some separatists took the fight beyond the borders of the republic; Chechens are suspected of perpetrating the Moscow Metro bombings of March 2010, killing at least 40.
But dissent has been quelled in recent years, and Kadyrov has taken credit for it. Strong prosecution of crime has been a hallmark of his tenure. Security personnel adorned in blue camouflage and brandishing automatic rifles are still a common sight on the clean sidewalks of Grozny, but as years go by, they find themselves less and less called upon to investigate violent crime.
Last year, the New York Times reported, the official number of Chechens who lost their lives to violent crime did not top 100, quite an achievement for a volatile country of 1.3 million that was embroiled in brutal conflict just 10 years ago.
While Chechnya enjoys relative stability, incidents in surrounding countries show that the region still faces serious threats.
Chechnya is landlocked in the Northern Caucasus, at the crossroads between Europe, Asia and the Middle East. To the west is the Black Sea, dominated by Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and Eastern Europe; to the east is the Caspian Sea, which opens onto the immense oil fields of Kazakhstan and whose coastline is shared by Iran, a Muslim theocracy that the West suspects of developing nuclear weapons. Keeping a toehold in that region is reason enough for the Kremlin to keep spending money and resources to prop up its friend Kadyrov.
Within the past week alone, Russian forces have engaged in clashes with insurgents that killed at least 19 people in various southern republics that are part of the Russian Federation: six in Dagestan, five in Ingushetia and eight in Kabardino-Balkaria. The separatist militant movement -- some call it a jihad -- spans all across the mostly Islamic North Caucasus region.
The insurgents’ common goal is a new Islamic region independent from Russia, which would include Chechnya. But separatism there has been so effectively subdued by the Kadyrov regime that the rebels' chances of succeeding are essentially nil.
And so Chechnya remains a tenuous success story for Russia, built on Russian rubles and ripe for hydrocarbon development. There is relative peace, infrastructure growth and a handpicked autocrat, not to mention a capital city that has made great strides to change its reputation: "Grozny" is a Russian adjective meaning "terror-inducing," and its recent history of destruction did it no favors.
Human rights violations, potential insurgencies and regional conflicts still threaten Chechnya’s development, but the official narrative doesn’t mention any of that. As Kadyrov said to the BBC earlier in September, “The life we are building today is wonderful.”