It was once the most destroyed city in Europe, until last year bearing a striking resemblance to Stalingrad. But, almost nine years after Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops to recapture the separatist republic of Chechnya at any cost, its capital Grozny has been transformed.
The bullet-ridden houses have disappeared. There is a new airport, with daily flights to Moscow. There is a rebuilt university, where students learn journalism and dentistry; a modern high school; a hospital. The Kremlin insists that the conflict in Chechnya, which claimed tens of thousands of lives, is definitively over.
But it is also clear that the rapid reconstruction of war-ravaged Chechnya has come at a price. In return for peace Chechnya has been transformed into a totalitarian fiefdom with a flourishing personality cult that might make North Koreans blush. Grozny’s streets are lined with ubiquitous portraits of one man – Chechnya’s bearded 31-year-old president Ramzan Kadyrov. Kadyrov’s distinctive features can be seen at bus stops, along boulevards, and at the airport, where a giant poster shows him holding a bunch of pink flowers. Nightly local TV bulletins heap praise on the youthful pro-Moscow leader.
Last December 99% of Chechens apparently voted for Putin and his United Russia party in State Duma elections – a miraculous result that prompted widespread derision but which Putin last week described in his annual Kremlin press conference as "perfectly objective". Officially the turnout in Chechnya was 99.6%. Local election officials have promised to deliver a similar thumping landslide for Putin’s anointed successor, Dmitry Medvedev when Russians go to the polls next Sunday in the country’s presidential election.
Kadyrov laughs off suggestions that his administration might have rigged December’s ballot in an over-zealous display of loyalty to Russia’s authoritarian president. "The result is all thanks to Vladimir Putin," he explains in a brief interview with the foreign press. "Thanks to him we have security, stability and prosperity in Chechnya. Ask anyone around here."….ok