Grozny’s new mosque, The Heart of Chechnya, is modeled after the Blue Mosque of Istanbul and has minarets soaring 60 meters into the sky. Behind construction workers are building three office and apartment towers, the tallest towers in the Caucasus. On a field outside of this city of 350,000, finishing touches are being put on a new, 30,000-seat glass and cement football stadium. Chechen officials hope that Moscow will include Grozny in the list of host cities for 2018 World Cup.
In Moscow, dial-a-quote experts who rely on their knowledge of their Caucasus from trips made 5 to 15 years ago, like to tell reporters that Chechnya is ‘a failed state’ and that the tide of history will sweep the Islamic majority republics out of the Russia Federation.
On the ground, the picture is different.
Yes, there is violence. Yes, there are lots of poorly shaven young men in strange uniforms carrying fully loaded kalashnikovs. And, yes, Chechnya is probably economically unviable, depending on Moscow for as much as 90 percent of its budget.
But, no, the fashionable new dream of Russian nationalists, the dream of cutting off the Caucasus and watching them eat their independence, is not going to happen on the watch of the Putin-Medvedev tandemocracy.
After visits in recent weeks to Chechnya and neighboring Ingushetia, it is clear to me that the Kremlin will shovel south as many rubles as it takes to keep the Caucasus under Russia’s wing.
Last week, Prime Minister Putin announced that 400 billion rubles will be spent this year on 37 development projects in the Caucasus. With Russia’s oil-inflated ruble trading at 28.7 to the dollar, that means $14 billion for 5 million people who are spread over less than 1 percent of Russia’s territory.
On my visit to Grozny, I searched in vain for evidence of what the city in notorious for – the war devastation that left Chechnya’s capital looking like Stalingrad after the Nazi siege. I came too late. After 1,000 days of frenzied construction activity, the city has been rebuilt.
Copy the countryside. A Chechen acquaintance, who investigates cases of people who disappeared during the Chechen wars and current ‘dirty war,’ says the most visible evidence of past fighting are the continued presence of armored personnel carriers in rural areas.
While plaster and mortar can cover up the external damage, the internal, psychic damage will take decades to heal. Wednesday afternoon , I was driving in a sagging Lada to the airport (newly refurbished), when the taxi driver mentioned that his brother, then 19, was killed in the early 1990s, fighting for Chechen independence. For a few blocks, a sad, gray cloud hovered over the taxi. Then he said that Chechnya can only be run by a strong hand.
Indeed, somewhat similar to the conflicts I once covered in Central America, Chechens are suffering from war fatigue. They don’t love the Russians any more than they did 15 years ago. They have realized they cannot survive economically on their own.
Tuesday night, in the opening ceremony for the Brazil-Grozny football game, massive loudspeakers blared, consecutively, the hymns of Brazil, Russia and Chechnya. As the Italian Romantic notes of the Brazil’s Hino Nacional floated through the mountain air, the 10,000 fans stopped their cheering and yelling to listen to this musical curiosity.
When the Russian anthem was played, they chatted, checked cellphones for messages, shuffled their feet, looked down, looked embarassed.
When, the Chechen anthem played, they rediscovered their vocal chords with a collective roar.