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Last Updated: Friday, 16 June 2006, 14:00 GMT 15:00 UK
Chechen life in the fast lane
By Steve Rosenberg
BBC News, Chechnya, Russia

If you fancy a great meal, why not try the Hollywood Restaurant in the Santa Barbara Shopping Centre?

The Hollywood restaurant, Grozny
Closing time at the Hollywood restaurant can be stressful

There's only one problem: this isn't California. It's Chechnya.

"Most of the customers we get in here have guns with them," the waitress told me.

"At closing time it can be a real problem asking them to leave."

In Chechnya, it's not only the restaurants where you'll find weapons.

The streets are full of people with guns; the roads are sprinkled with police checkpoints.

Russia's ally

But the tightest security is reserved for the most powerful man in Chechnya - Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov.

Two years ago Chechen rebels blew up his father, Akhmad, the local pro-Moscow president.

Ramzan Kadyrov
Ramzan Kadyrov is protected by a much-feared militia
Ramzan isn't taking any chances.

He drives round in a convoy of more than a dozen cars full of heavily armed bodyguards.

A former militant who switched sides, Ramzan is the man Moscow has been counting on to take on the Chechen rebels and help restore the Kremlin's control.

Human rights campaigners accuse him and his troops of committing widespread abuses, but within Chechnya his popularity is growing.

I caught up with Ramzan on the construction site of the biggest mosque in the North Caucasus.

He called me over and showed me a letter.

"Look, the Americans are sending over a team of wrestlers to take part in a competition here," Ramzan said.

"And you people in the West think there's still a war going on in Chechnya! Huh!" he added - and then stuck his tongue out at me!

According to the 29-year-old prime minister, "Chechnya is the safest place in the world".

But it didn't feel like it when I found myself in Ramzan's convoy speeding through the Chechen countryside.

The man behind the wheel was a Chechen motor racing enthusiast, which could explain why we were hurtling along at 190km an hour.

We narrowly avoided mowing down two policemen and crashing into an oncoming lorry.

Along the way we stopped to see Ramzan visit a hospital, open a new bridge and a new school.

Reconstruction boom

Outside the school building, a group of children recited poems praising the premier.

A bombed-out block of flats in Grozny
The war destroyed much of Chechnya's infrastructure
Then the teachers weighed in with their own messages of appreciation.

"Ramzan's our hero," the English teacher glowed. "He's done so much for his people."

There are obvious achievements.

In the hundred days Ramzan has been prime minister, a reconstruction boom has gripped Grozny.

Apartment blocks left in ruins by a decade of war are now being knocked down, new buildings, new roads are being built.

But the public praise does seem a little excessive.

This week during Chechen TV's first ever live interactive chat show, the presenter reported that 99.9% of callers thought Ramzan was doing a good job.

Across Chechnya there have been concerts and firework displays marking Ramzan's first 100 days in office.

Street banners proclaim "A hundred days which changed Chechnya!" and "Ramzan, We're Proud of You!"

Add to that all the portraits of Ramzan staring down on towns and villages across Chechnya, as well as the Ramzan Fan Club which paraded through the centre of Grozny this week, and it feels like the start of a cult of personality.

In the evening, Ramzan invited us to dinner at his country residence (his 'palace' as the locals call it).

As we sat enjoying a mixed fare of Chechen and European cuisine (boiled mutton next to beef cutlets), our host sat glued to a giant screen, watching himself on TV.

"Isn't there a danger that all this praise could go to your head?" I suggested.

"All this praise is completely unnecessary," Ramzan replied.

"I get my salary and that's all I need. And anyone who thinks there's a cult of personality here - well, they're an enemy of Russia."

Map of the Caucus

Chechnya's prime minister sets out his vision

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