War-ravaged Chechnya shows a stunning rebirth - but at what price?
Billions of dollars in aid from Moscow have helped to rapidly rebuild Chechnya – and President Ramzan Kadyrov has been given free rein to rule with an iron hand in exchange for peace.
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"Kadyrov has been reinforcing traditional aspects of Islamic law, including some things that violate the Russian Constitution," says Tatiana Lokshina, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Moscow bureau and author of a report on the creeping Islamization of the republic. "If you're a woman in Chechnya, you can't really attend school or university without keeping your head covered. No woman – not even a non-Muslim – can enter a government building without appropriate dress and a head scarf. This is in contradiction to the rights of Russian citizens."Skip to next paragraph
Ms. Lokshina, a frequent visitor to Chechnya, says Kadyrov has encouraged his own officials to take a second wife – even when they don't want to – and publicly warned women that if they stray from the demands of Islamic morality, it would be understandable if they were murdered by their menfolk in an honor killing.
"None of this takes the form of written legislation," Lokshina says, "but Kadyrov openly states what he wants. The only law in Chechnya today is what Kadyrov says it is."
Chechnya has been ravaged by two wars in as many decades: 1994-96, and 1999-2009. The conflicts killed an estimated 350,000 people, created hundreds of thousands of refugees, and laid waste to the entire republic. The Kremlin finally declared victory over the separatist threat in 2009 and withdrew most Russian military forces, leaving Kadyrov in charge.
Though thousands of Chechens remain homeless, life has visibly improved for the majority. "Grozny has become a modern metropolis, with new districts, good roads, sewage systems, schools, and hospitals," says Zaurbek Gakayev, a Chechen who lives in Moscow but travels frequently to Chechnya. "Electricity and running water have been restored. This is all to the credit of the state.
"And it's not only in the capital city," he continues, "but all over the republic. The changes are colossal, and they've become really noticeable in the past couple of years."
Extreme wealth, extreme poverty
While life is still demanding for most, and male unemployment by official measures was a staggering 50 percent last year (and quite possibly higher), a few Chechens have built mansions and enjoy globe-trotting lifestyles.
Kadyrov himself reportedly maintains a private zoo, with tigers and other exotic animals, on his estate near Gudermes. He hired international stars Seal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Hilary Swank to perform at his birthday party last year.
"In Chechnya, we see a regime where everyone is subordinated to one man and his circle," says Svetlana Gannushkina, director of Civil Assistance, a Moscow-based charity organization that assists internal refugees. "There is extreme wealth, which allows celebrations that cost millions of dollars, along with extreme poverty for the majority.
"Basically," she says, "the Chechens have lived with fear for so long that they've internalized it. They don't even notice it anymore; being afraid has become a part of the Chechen personality."