When it was last in the international spotlight, Chechnya was in ruins, its capital Grozny reduced to dust by the deadliest artillery and air onslaught in Europe since World War Two.
Today, when the naming of two Chechens as suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings has put it back on the world’s front pages, Chechnya appears almost miraculously reborn.
The streets have been rebuilt. Walls riddled with bullet holes are long gone. New high rise buildings soar into the sky. Spotless playgrounds are packed with children. A giant marble mosque glimmers in the night.
Yet, scratch the surface and the miracle is less impressive than it seems. Behind closed doors, people speak of a warped and oppressive place, run by a Kremlin-imposed leader through fear.
The heavily guarded skyscrapers of the newly built Grozny City complex are windswept and empty.
At night, the streets are deserted.
Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s ethnic homeland, a mainly Muslim province that saw centuries of war and repression, no longer threatens to secede fromRussia. But it has become breeding ground for a form of militant Islam whose adherents have spread violence to other parts of Russia, and may have inspired the radicalization of the Boston bombers.
"It may look like it’s stable and peaceful but it’s really not the case," said a human rights campaigner, who, like others daring to express any criticism of the Moscow-backed Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, asked that her name not be used.
There are still fragmented groups of rebel fighters in the mountains, the activist added. "And there are young people in the villages who go out and join them, who take food to the mountains."
Sushi, iPhones and Islam
Moscow has poured billions of roubles into Chechnya to rebuild it. It boasts that there is no longer any trace of the separatist insurgency that humiliated the Russian army in battles in the 1990’s.
On top of what was once the rubble of Grozny’s central Minutka Square — where an armored column of Russian forces was nearly wiped out in street fighting in January 1995 - there are now slick cafes where young men in leather jackets and women in headscarves eat sushi and tap on their iPhones.
Kadyrov, a 36-year-old former rebel, peers down from billboards and out from TV newscasts. A red neon slogan declares "Ramzan, thank you for Grozny!"
A stocky man with a neatly trimmed beard and intense grey eyes, he cultivates an image as a devout Muslim and family man, fond of posting snapshots on Internet photo service Instagram.
He loves a good party, especially when he is the guest of honor. In 2011 he hired singer Seal and Hollywood stars Jean-Claude Van Damme and Hilary Swank to appear at his birthday jubilee. After human rights groups complained, Swank apologized, fired her manager and gave her six-figure fee to charity.
Kadyrov and his authorities deny they are involved in abuse, murders or disappearances. But his critics have a long history of dying in unsolved murders or disappearing without a trace.
Human rights groups have linked Kadyrov to the murders of Russian opposition-minded journalist Anna Politkovskaya, Chechen exiles in Austria and Turkey, and rival Chechen clan chiefs shot dead in Moscow and Dubai, all cases in which he denies involvement.
Russian human rights activist Natalya Estemirova was abducted in Grozny in 2009 and later found dead. Rights groups list the names of up to 5,000 Chechens who are still missing.
Kadyrov’s office said he was not available for interview.
His loyalty can be embarrassing even for the Kremlin. At the last elections, President Vladimir Putin and his ruling United Russia party won more than 99 percent of Chechnya’s vote, with Soviet-style turnout over 99 percent.
Grozny’s central thoroughfare is now named after Putin.Next Page >
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