Margaret Evans: Grozny's makeover can't mask Chechen menace

Despite the facelift that's remade the Chechen capital of Grozny, it's impossible to mistake the underlying fear that prevails in the Russian republic near Sochi, host of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, the CBC's Margaret Evans writes.

Abuses being committed in the name of achieving stability in Russian republic

The first thing you see when you step off the plane at Grozny’s international airport is a huge portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin hanging on the control tower alongside that of Akhmad Kadyrov, father of current Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov.  

Akhmad was a former Chechen rebel who fought the Russians before he turned and was made Chechen leader in 2000. He was elected president in 2003 in a dubious election and assassinated the following year. When his son Ramzan became old enough, Putin made sure he was installed on the Chechen "throne."

"It's very feudal," says Russian security expert Pavel Felgenhauer. "There's a kind of homage that [Ramzan] Kadyrov pays to Putin and in return he gets money and gets an almost absolute power in Chechnya."

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In Kadyrov, Putin gets a leader who has pledged to rid Russia of its militant "problem" in Chechnya and to use his private army to hunt down and kill Islamist militants still based in the hills around Grozny. 

Analysts say that the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympic Games in nearby Sochi look set to cement the increasingly co-dependent relationship between Putin and Kadyrov even further.

"[Kadyrov] knows that Putin depends on him for keeping that territory reasonably stable, or rather at least the instability within his territory," says Masha Lipman of the Moscow Carnegie Centre.

"And of course, he uses that as a lever to actually extract more money, more concessions."

The huge "cult of personality" billboards Ramzan has hung of himself and his father all around town say a lot about Putin's confidence in his protege, and of the protege's confidence in his own future. In other words, this is a dynasty in the making. Message delivered.

In the newly made-over Chechen capital, it's hard to escape the feeling that you’ve entered some kind of comic book kingdom.

Thanks to regular financial transfers from Moscow, gleaming tower blocks and long elegant boulevards have replaced the battered moonscape seared across the minds of most westerners when they think of Chechnya and the devastation that followed the two separatist wars with Russia in the 1990s.  

A 32-storey luxury hotel with a domed restaurant at the top towers over the city. It features the latest in new elevator technology, but no luggage trolley. 

Young women go around Grozny in high heels, a last form of defiance against strict new dress codes. (CBC)

The malls advertise designer boutiques, karaoke bars and a shooting range — for a population with an unemployment rate of more than 30 per cent. 

Young women teeter around town in outrageously high heels, their last form of defiance against strict new dress codes for women. Headscarves are now mandatory for women at school and in the public workplace, as are long sleeves and long skirts. 

Kadyrov's Chechnya is an increasingly religious one, although he insists it's a far cry from the fundamentalist future envisaged by the Salafi guerillas fighting in the hills.

The Chechen insurgency has become increasingly Islamist in nature, no longer just about nationalism or an independent Chechnya. Some militants want to establish an Islamic state across the North Caucasus.

After the years of Soviet rule, many Chechens welcome the chance to practise their faith in the open and to see it celebrated with soaring new mosques and the introduction of Koranic study at school.

Others say the enforced nature of Kadyrov's new rules is just one more sign of a new totalitarian state in the making

"It's the religion that's forcing it," a young woman called Leila said at one of the city’s new shopping malls.

"We should be able to do what we want. For example, I can't even go to the park, I have to wear this scarf on my head and if it slightly falls off they tell you to put back on. I want to leave this place."

Gregory Shvedov, editor in chief of a publication called Caucasian Knot, compares what’s happening in Chechnya to Syria before the uprising there. (CBC)

Despite Grozny's impressive new facelift, it's impossible to mistake the underlying current of both fear and menace that prevails.

Gregory Shvedov, editor in chief of a publication called Caucasian Knot, compares what's happening in Chechnya to Syria before the uprising there: seen and unseen worlds.

Shvedof says on the surface nobody would guess that "hundreds of people" were being tortured in Chechnya today, just as you might not have guessed it visiting Damascus before the uprising in Syria. 

I met a victim of one of the alleged secret torture camps in Chechnya before leaving Moscow, a Chechen man now in hiding there.

Accused of giving food to rebels in his village, he was arrested and jailed for months.

"Everything that was breakable they broke," he said. "They hung me and electrocuted me. They shot two people in front of me. When I confessed, it was to save my life.

'There are shiny new buildings, new roads, movie stars are coming from all over," he said of Grozny, "but the public, the people living there, are afraid of each other. They are so scared and don't know where to turn.""

There are fewer and fewer places left for people to seek help.

Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov may be trying to quell the insurgency in the hills, but in Grozny, a gun culture is still being promoted to young children. (Ousama Farag/CCBC)

Human rights advocates are now an endangered species in Chechnya. 

Critics say Kadyrov’s reach is long, that his perceived enemies have a tendency of disappearing.

"Some of his opponents here in Moscow are just simply gunned down on the street," says Felgenhauer.

Kheda Saratova is one of the last human rights advocates working in the open in Chechnya. Her friend and colleague Natalya Estimirova was abducted and shot by unknown assailants in 2009. 

A few weeks later, two aid workers were found shot dead in the trunk of their car.

Saratova works to help families whose relatives are caught up in security sweeps by Kadyrov's forces, many held for months without charge or trial, others simply disappearing.

She says that for the regime it's become about building statistics; guilt or innocence is a secondary consideration.

Attacks in Moscow

More than 654 people have been killed in Moscow bombings and other attacks over the past 16 years, including the Jan. 24, 2011, bombing at Domodedovo airport that killed at least 36 people and injured about 180 people. Two weeks later, Chechen warlord Doku Umarov said he ordered that attack.

"Every time Kadyrov appears on TV, he always asks the chief of police and other authorities what are the latest stats on the number of rebels we've killed."

Saratova introduced our crew to a group of her friends one evening. Spooked about giving an interview in public, we had met to do the filming at one of their houses.

"Kadyrov has managed to do to Chechnya what Stalin and the entire Russian army couldn't do," our hostess joked.

Before we left, afraid of losing another friend, our hostess chastised us for talking to Saratova and Saratova for talking to us. 

"I know exactly what kind of country I am in," Saratova said later, admitting she has become more nervous of late.

"Everything I speak out about may cost me dearly."

Kheda Saratova works to help families whose relatives are caught up in security sweeps by Ramzan Kadyrov's forces. (CBC)

She has her own family to worry about, but says she simply cannot make herself stop, despite the fear that sometimes clutches at her heart.

"There are only a few of us left who can speak about the things I’m speaking about to you," she says, noting the mantra in her head at night is the same one she had during war time: "Please let me live until the morning."

Chechnya today, she says, is worse. 

"During the war, you could always hide from the bombs. There was always somewhere you could run to. But today you don't know who to trust. You start to doubt and be suspicious of even your own colleagues. That's the most frightening thing, worse than during the war."

Message delivered.