Golden Chains Bind Chechnya to Moscow

Posted March 11th, 2011 at 3:55 pm (UTC+0)

At the end of Putin Avenue, rises The Heart of Chechnya mosque, reputed to be the largest in Europe Photo: Diana Markosian

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.

A Chechen woman washes a floor inside Grozny's new mosque. (AP Photo: Sergey Ponomarev

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.

To outflank the fundamentalists, Chechnya's leader, Ramzan Kadyrov has mandated that Chechen women wear headscarves in school, offices and downtown Grozny. With Islamic fashion boutiques now dotting Putin Avenue, an aide to Kadyrov models the new/old style. Photo: James Brooke

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.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

2 responses to “Golden Chains Bind Chechnya to Moscow”

  1. Kyle King says:

    It is amazing how conventional wisdom has a way of hanging on. The “dial-a-quote” experts (love that expression) are a tough bunch to out flank. But its nice to see someone with fresh eyes going to these “war torn” places like Grozny, or Sarajevo, or Belfast for that matter, and discovering that people have simply moved on.

  2. Pyotr says:

    The chechen in sagging Lada is right, chechens understand only the power of force and are unable to organize a stable state by themselves. Russians are to force them to submission otherwise this territory would become a threat much bigger than it is now. The problem is russians are not solving the problem this way only posponing it… Imho we should let go and strengthen our southern borders with chechnya to prevent penetrating of the murderers, thugs and terrorists from the territory of chechnya.



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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