Chechnya's regeneration has been all the more remarkable for passing largely unnoticed in the West, where images remain fresh of its capital city, Grozny, as a smashed moonscape that was often compared to Stalingrad after World War II.
But today, thanks to billions of dollars in Kremlin aid, downtown Grozny now features broad avenues – including one named after Russian leader Vladimir Putin – lined with luxury boutiques and new glass-fronted skyscrapers. Many of the city's once-shattered residential neighborhoods now boast clusters of graceful high-rise apartment blocks. Grozny's airport is totally refurbished and hosts daily flights to Moscow and other Russian cities. Where mine fields and piles of rubble dominated the city's center just six years ago, the marble-lined Akhmad Haji Kadyrov mosque – reputedly the largest mosque in Europe – now towers over the landscape with its four 197-foot minarets.
But experts say that all this physical progress has come at a high price. In exchange for peace, they say, the Kremlin has turned Chechnya over to President Ramzan Kadyrov, who runs the mountainous republic of about 1.3 million people as if it were his private fiefdom.
"Chechnya is now a nearly sovereign state within the Russian state; what goes on there would be impossible in any other part of Russia," says Sergei Arutyunov, a Caucasus expert at the official Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology in Moscow. "It's extraordinary that Kadyrov is able to be absolutely independent in his decisionmaking, while he is simultaneously completely dependent on the Kremlin for his funding. Chechnya survives thanks to vast subsidies from Moscow, yet Russian authority scarcely exists there."
Though separatist and Islamist rebels have been largely defeated and driven into a few mountain strongholds, the police state constructed by Mr. Kadyrov still holds sway. Human rights monitors say that political critics continue to disappear, though not as frequently as in the past, and no one publicly questions the growing personality cult of Kadyrov, whose bearded face gazes down from the billboards and posters that sprout almost everywhere.
Kadyrov defies Constitution
In defiance of Russia's Constitution, Kadyrov has allegedly moved to impose sharia, or Islamic, law in the tiny republic, including mandatory head scarves and dress codes for women, encouragement of polygamy, and forgiveness for so-called honor killings.
"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."
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."