Signs of Renewal Emerge From Chechnya's Ruins

Posted in Russia | 04-May-06 | Author: C.J. Chivers| Source: The New York Times

An Orthodox church rebuilt in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, which was largely destroyed by years of war.
An Orthodox church rebuilt in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, which was largely destroyed by years of war.
GROZNY, Russia, April 28 — Even at night the fresh sounds rise above one of the most ruined cities on earth. They are the thumps of hammers and mallets, and the rumbles of diesel engines. Lights glow inside the shells of broken buildings, where masons are at work.

For years spring has reliably meant renewed fighting here in the capital of Chechnya. But after more than a decade of war, banditry and stubborn disorder, a noticeably different spring campaign has gained momentum with the Caucasus thaw.

This year, with bombings and roadside ambushes less frequent than before, sections of Chechnya are being rebuilt at last. Roads are being paved, buildings repaired, electric cables hung. Scaffolding now cloaks many of the heavy ruins on the main boulevards. Shops are appearing, even on side streets.

"By the end of the year, you will not recognize this place," said Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya's new prime minister, as he sped through the city in a car with two loaded assault rifles on the back seat.

Few countries have destroyed one of their own cities the way Russia sacked Grozny in 1999 and 2000, beginning a new cycle of insurgency and counterinsurgency in a republic that has long defied Moscow's rule. The surge in restoration, occurring in a place that has provided some of the darkest behavior and most contentious disagreements in post-Soviet Russia, has given life to new lines of argument.

Has Chechnya's separatist insurgency lost its footing, and the volatile republic begun to recover? Or is this Potemkin Grozny, a show made for fools?

On one point, though, everyone seems to agree. "The level of reconstruction is staggering," said Tanya Lokshina, a program director for the Moscow Helsinki Group. She visits Chechnya frequently and is one of the sharpest critics of Russia's policies in the region and of Mr. Kadyrov, a 29-year-old politician who, in his previous role as the leader of a violent pro-Kremlin paramilitary force, was accused of corruption, torture and approving kidnappings.

Officials here say the restoration efforts are part of a larger plan that the Kremlin has long said it was pursuing, but never with much visible result.

Grozny fell to Russia's military and pro-Kremlin Chechen fighters in 2000. But the war between Russia and the separatists, now an underground force, went on without sign of relief through 2004. Chechnya's towns and cities remained hellish tableaus of destruction and squalor.

Since last year, however, the pace of guerrilla and terrorist operations has slowed in Chechnya, as many former separatists have joined the ranks of Mr. Kadyrov's publicly pro-Kremlin forces and after the former separatist leader, Aslan Maskhadov, was killed. (Some analysts suspect that Mr. Kadyrov's government and its forces are less loyal to Moscow than he says.)

A significant fraction of the fighting and terrorist acts also shifted to other areas in Russia's Caucasus, where the separatists operate under a larger banner, the Caucasus Front.

The underground separatist movement in Chechnya, led since last year by Abdul Khalim Saidullayev, a relatively unknown fighter who presents himself as an Islamic religious figure, repeatedly claims that its reach, influence and ranks are growing.

But as the separatists make claims of success, Mr. Kadyrov and the Kremlin have managed to set upon a program of repair in what was once the heart of rebel activity. Russia's counterinsurgency efforts now include not just guns and elections rigged to advance the careers of the Kremlin's proxies, but lumber, bricks and light.

Large sections of the republic now have electricity, if intermittently. Neighborhoods in two larger towns, Argun and Gudermes, where Mr. Kadyrov operates one of his headquarters, have undergone extensive paving, renovations and new construction.

In Grozny, more than 60 miles of roads have been restored, according to Akhmed Gikhayev, Chechnya's construction minister, and the buildings on several main streets are under repair. The changes are early enough that each intact pane of glass, each unbroken street lamp and each hour of electric power all have the feel of political decree.

As violence ebbs, a work crew is trying to reclaim three large apartment buildings in one of Grozny's main squares.
As violence ebbs, a work crew is trying to reclaim three large apartment buildings in one of Grozny's main squares.
Some sights are surprising: the freshly poured foundation for an enormous new mosque, working traffic lights at several intersections, apartment buildings under restoration and street lamps illuminating sections of rebuilt roadways at night.

It is now possible to drive the 20 miles or so from Gudermes to Grozny late at night, encountering traffic all along the way, and having part of the trip beneath street lamps. Until this year it was a dark, lonely and harrowing trip.

Others sights are surreal, including two new coffee houses in the city's center that serve cappuccino and espresso, a working travel agency selling airline tickets and the Flik Flak Moscow Circus, a one-ring affair beneath a tent that holds more than 300 people.

The circus has been performing two shows a day to full houses since March; members of its troupe said they had come to feel at ease. "At first we were afraid to be here," said Adonts Armen, an acrobat. "Our opinion has changed."

Together, the new construction and new activities have created bands of modernity in the landscape of ruins. Mr. Kadyrov, the son of a Kremlin-backed president who was assassinated in 2004, said these patches of order were a sign that the military consolidation in Chechnya had not just shifted, but shifted decisively.

"This war, if you ask me, is over," he said.

That, by almost anyone else's assessment, is an overstatement. The republic remains dangerous and plagued by fear, abductions and concerns over safety. Russia still restricts the access of foreigners.

"I am afraid to be too much reassuring about security," said Movsar Temirbayev, the mayor of Grozny. "It is far from ideal, but the power structures are performing their duties, and it is much safer than it was."

And if the reconstruction is impressive in places, it is also fragile and localized, and has not yet addressed the difficult and expensive tasks of restoring sewage lines, gas and flows of potable water. The city has perhaps 230,000 to 250,000 people, the mayor said, not quite half of the prewar population.

Russia also still maintains tens of thousands of soldiers and police officers here, most of whom are in bunkers or behind walls. The site of the most extensive revival, a nearly mile-long section of one of the city's main streets, Prospekt Pobedy, is watched over by armed Russians at observation points on roofs.

The financing of the restoration is also uncertain. President Vladimir V. Putin has said that hundreds of millions of rubles should be sent to Chechnya for restoration, but officials here claim much of the construction to date has been paid for by a foundation named for Mr. Kadyrov's late father. Its financial sources are unclear.

Ms. Lokshina said much of the money has been raised by shaking down the republic's small work force and business class; a Chechen official, who asked to remain anonymous for his safety, agreed. Whispers of scams, diversions and kickbacks are widespread.

Most important, perhaps, it remains to be seen whether the reconstruction will continue, or whether once Mr. Kadyrov has restored enough shattered buildings and paved enough muddy streets — giving his political résumé something besides bloodline and violence — the reconstruction will cease, leaving Chechnya with a few freshly restored stripes.

For now the changes are so new that many analysts are withholding judgment until more information becomes available. "Certainly, some of this is facade, and for a while I thought that was how it was going to remain," Ms. Lokshina said. "But now they are really doing something. You can see the construction spreading."

Whether restoration efforts can calm the population's underlying anger, and ease its grief, are questions that will not soon be answered. . Chechnya's capacity for violence, its deeply held codes of revenge and the separatists' record of ferocity and tactical cunning all make predicting outcomes here an act of folly.

But Chechnya's separatists thus far ridicule the reconstruction, saying it is being done by "collaborators" and at the expense of citizens, some of whom have been evicted to make way.

"The only things being built are buildings for the marionettes, barracks for punitive troops and other entertainment complexes," Anzor Maskhadov, the son of the late separatist president, Aslan Maskhadov, said in an e-mail message.

He provided a list of Russian generals who commanded bombardments on the city. "It would be fair to force those who destroyed Grozny with bombs and rockets," he wrote, "to rebuild the city. But here they expel our people from the barracks' construction sites."

Mr. Kadyrov laughed when he heard of the criticisms against him. He has ordered Gudermes to be restored by early May. Then, he said, the heavy equipment will be moved to Argun, for more work there. In time, if the plan is realized, it will all be concentrated here.

"So far this is only a little," he said. "Everything will be done."