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The Kremlin's Chechen franchise

By Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
BBC News, Grozny

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Grozny's huge new mosque can accommodate 10,000 worshippers

Grozny. It is not a name that conjures up thoughts of anything good. In Russian the word means "terrible". And for most of the last 15 years that is what life there has been.

So what I am about to say may come as a bit of a surprise.

Grozny is no longer terrible. It is not war-torn, it is not shattered, it is not even mildly depressing. Today Grozny is, on the surface, one of the most pleasant provincial cities in Russia.

The transformation from "most destroyed city on earth" to a city of tree-lined avenues, well groomed parks and pearly white apartment buildings, is nothing short of astonishing.

And then there is the new mosque. It dominates the city centre, a huge marble pile, with a soaring minaret at each corner. It is an almost exact copy of the great Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and can fit 10,000 worshippers.

So what does all this show? Have Chechens really laid down their arms and accepted Russian sovereignty?

Well no, not quite.

Kremlin franchise

Standing across the road from the great mosque last week, I watched the following peculiar spectacle.

Ramzan Kadyrov (in forage cap) reviews troops in Grozny on 9 May
The Kremlin has entrusted security to Ramzan Kadyrov

On top of a reviewing stand, a corpulent Russian general stood shoulder to shoulder with a former Chechen rebel.

The two of them watched proudly as hundreds of former rebel fighters marched past in crisp Russian uniforms, carrying shiny Russian assault rifles.

Moscow has effectively franchised its war in Chechnya.

The former rebel is Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. The former fighters, his private army.

Ramzan Kadyrov is just 32 years old. He has the physique of a wrestler and a reputation for violence.

Moscow's policy in Chechnya revolves around this young man. It supplies him with lots of money and Mr Kadyrov makes sure Chechnya is no longer a "problem" for Moscow.

Both sides are getting most of what they want. Moscow gets to keep Chechnya inside the Russian Federation. Mr Kadyrov gets bankrolled by the Kremlin and runs Chechnya as a personal fiefdom.

The result for ordinary Chechens is less certain. Most are simply relieved the war is over.

Dirty war

But apart from the construction industry, the Chechen economy is still in ruins.

A street in Grozny
Grozny is gradually being rebuilt

Unemployment runs at 75% and the only skill most young Chechen men have is how to shoot a gun. We found labourers from Azerbaijan working on construction sites in Grozny. The waiter in our hotel restaurant was from Tajikistan. This is not a recipe for success.

And then there is the dirty war.

You will search long and hard in Grozny to find anyone with a bad word to say against Ramzan Kadyrov. Much of the regard for him is genuine. The attitude of many of the Chechens I spoke to is "he may be a bastard, but he's our bastard".

But there is also no doubt that people fear Mr Kadyrov.

The militias he controls have a well-deserved reputation for brutality. Human rights workers in Grozny told me the militias' main method of fighting the remnants of the Islamic insurgency is to abduct suspects and torture them until they confess.

Chechen troops march in Grozny on Victory Day, 9 May
Chechen troops marched in Grozny to mark victory in World War II

In Grozny I met one family whose three sons were abducted from their home last December. The next day they were called to a police station to identify the bodies.

Two of the men had been shot, the other strangled. The family said the bodies had been dressed in combat fatigues to make them look like rebels.

We also discovered evidence that the Chechen government is retaliating against the families of rebels by burning their houses.

In a village in Vedeno district I was shown a house completely gutted by fire. Relatives told me how militiamen had come in the middle of the night, forced the family out of the house and then thrown in petrol bombs. The militiamen told them it was punishment for their son "going to the forest".

Villagers laughed at the idea the burnings might discourage other young men from going to the forest to join the rebels. "It will just make the young men more angry," they said.

The government in Grozny claims there are only a few hundred rebels still holding out in the mountains and that they are no longer any real threat to Moscow's control.

But if the men in the Kremlin think they can now sleep easy, assured that Chechnya is secure, they may want to think about this.

In quiet conversations, the Chechen men told me they do not forgive Russia for what it has done to them, they hate the Russian military with a deep loathing, and above all there will be no forgiveness for Vladimir Putin, the man who ordered the assault that killed so many of their kin.



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