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Russia's region of 'lawlessness'

Since the wars in Chechnya in the mid and late 1990's, Russia's North Caucasus has remained largely off-limits to foreign journalists. But James Rodgers, who covered the separatists' conflict with Kremlin troops has just returned from a rare trip.

A lot had changed and very little.

Grozny in 2005
Just a few years ago, much of Grozny was still rubble

The wars in Chechnya were the bloodiest consequence of the break-up of the Soviet Union - one president's greatest mistake and the making of another's reputation as a strong leader.

Boris Yeltsin launched a disastrous campaign to crush the separatists. It cost tens of thousands of lives.

Vladimir Putin's tough line helped to deliver him the presidency. He has never looked back.

Chechnya does not want to look back now either. But on my first visit for eight years I sensed that today's comparative calm may not last much longer than the new paint on the reconstructed buildings.

The transformation is stunning. The minarets of an enormous mosque - a symbol of Chechnya's renewed Muslim identity - now tower above the central square.

Blocks of flats have risen where there was only rubble. The destruction of Grozny almost defied description or comparison.

"Worse than Beirut" was the verdict of one photojournalist - and that was only during the first war.

In 1999 Russian federal forces mercilessly bombed Grozny once more. By 2000, the city centre was just a layer of fractured masonry.

That has all gone.

'A thousand good deeds'

Chechnya's President, Ramzan Kadyrov, is the driving force behind the rebuilding. His picture is everywhere.

Ramzan Kadyrov, president of Chechnya (Photo: AP/Musa Sadulayev)
Mr Kadyrov is the son of former Chechen president Akhmad Kadyrov

"One hundred days, 1,000 good deeds," reads one of the banners celebrating his achievements.

Mr Kadyrov has his opponents.

Sulim Yamadayev is one. Like Mr Kadyrov, he is a former rebel fighter who now pledges his loyalty to the Kremlin. He does not pledge his loyalty to Mr Kadyrov.

A few days before I arrived, supporters of the two men fought a gun battle. As many as 18 people are reported to have been killed.

Shoot-outs are just part of the picture. There are kidnappings. People disappear.

This lawlessness was the reason for my return.

A human-rights delegation from the Council of Europe was visiting. I was allowed to go with them. It is the only straightforward way of getting there officially, even now.

Most of the north Caucasus lies in what Moscow calls the "zone of anti-terrorist operations."

Reporters require special permission to go there. Even that gives no guarantee either of freedom of movement or of safety.

It is more than a decade since the Kremlin first insisted that Chechnya was getting back to normal.

There is genuine gratitude for what Mr Kadyrov has done, even if people's praise for him sometimes seems a little too enthusiastic

While appearances have improved strikingly, there is nothing normal about Chechnya. Armed men ere everywhere.

Something terrible has clearly happened here in recent years. Thousands of people are still missing.

The new facades reminded me of the verse from St Matthew's gospel, which Joseph Conrad refers to in Heart Of Darkness.

"Like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within, full of dead men's bones."

The Chechens have not recovered. How could they? I felt they were simply glad the bombing has stopped.

There seem to be few jobs for men except joining one of the various security forces. Women work on market stalls or in cafes.

There is genuine gratitude for what Mr Kadyrov has done, even if people's praise for him sometimes seems a little too enthusiastic to be entirely convincing.

In one sense he is a perfect figurehead. Now in his early thirties he has lived with conflict all his adult life. His father died a violent death, blown up by a bomb in 2004.

A future

A new generation has been born since the last full-scale fighting in the spring of 2000.

Map of Chechnya showing the capital Grozny

The Council of Europe delegation visited a school. What did these six and seven-year-olds want to be when they grew up?

"A policeman," said almost all the boys.

I also visited Ingushetia, the region to the west of Chechnya. This used to be a safe place. No longer. Militants are killing local officials and ethnic Russians.

The groups who are trying to reignite conflict in the Caucasus have plenty to work with. Stories that the Russians and their Chechen allies do not trust each other are easy to believe.

There was a hitch in our travel arrangements. Russians and Chechens were quick to blame each other.

"The locals are idiots," fumed one Muscovite as the spring sun became comfortably warm and the delay continued. He did not know that the Chechen next to him had just said the same to me about Russians.

I did not feel that the north Caucasus was about to explode again. People are exhausted and the rebels are now thought to number only a few hundred.

But the missing and the dead have relatives and Chechnya has a long tradition of blood feuds.

There are countless unemployed young men.

Moscow must persuade them and their younger brothers that they have a future. If not, joining the militants may appeal more than joining the police.

A new generation of fighters may yet challenge the Kremlin's control over Russia's southern edge.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 26 April, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Regions and territories: Chechnya
12 Mar 08 |  Country profiles
Profile: Ramzan Kadyrov
05 Apr 07 |  Europe

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