Gracious Grozny

In the second of a three part series, TNI senior editor Anatol Lieven reflects on his meetings with high-level Russian officials at the Valdai Club conference last week.

In a way, Chechnya, which we visited in the course of the Valdai Club discussions in Russia last week, can stand as a more savage version of the Putin era in Russia as a whole: namely the successful restoration of order and progress, by methods which were often extremely ugly, but which may have been the only ones available under the circumstances.

Grozny, which I last saw as an immense heap of rubble, is now a truly impressive sight, with fine modern apartment blocks and a beautiful Turkish-built mosque, modeled on the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, towering over the main square. Opposite, on the site of the old Soviet-era republican council which General Dudayev used as his headquarters before the war of 1994, there is now a garden with a statue of the previous pro-Russian President of Chechnya, Ahmed Kadyrov, assassinated by a bomb in 1994. Walls in the centre were festooned with huge pictures of his son Ramzan, the present president (often accompanied by ones of Vladimir Putin), and slogans like "Ramzan, you were president for only one year and our city rose from the ashes."

So totally has the center changed that it was difficult for a while to remember where things used to be. In fact, Grozny as it now stands is a vast improvement on the city as it stood before the war of 1994, when it was a dirty, run-down Soviet industrial city with grim, shabby architecture, very few amenities-and no visible mosques at all. As a British journalist friend who has visited both places muttered, "We could learn something from this about how to rebuild Kabul and Baghdad."

It may, however, have been a help in the reconstruction that the current population of 228,000 is less than half of that recorded in the last Soviet census. Most of the losses come from the fact that Grozny was historically a mainly Russian-inhabited city, and the great bulk of the Russian population had fled even before 1994, driven out by the collapse of law and order and the special vulnerability of Russians to Chechen criminal attack. On the other hand, looking at the gleaming new buildings, I could not help also reflecting that no-one will ever know how many former inhabitants of the city now lie buried beneath their foundations. This left me with an eerie impression, as if the ghosts of the old buildings and the old people were staring out from between the ribs of the new.

We drove out of Grozny to visit Chechnya's president, Ramzan Kadyrov, in his compound in the hills to the east. Security, though visible, was not heavy, suggesting that things really have become much more peaceful in Chechnya. Certainly the presidential houses, with their expanses of glass windows, would not be a good place to be in during a bombardment.

The architecture of the compound varies from Italianate to nineteenth century Russian to modern to generic "Islamic," with the conference centre apparently modeled on the Soviet-era Great Hall of the People in the Kremlin. In the middle is an artificial lake with an artificial hill seemingly made out of greenish playdough, perched on which are four enormous eagle statues. Peacocks strolled in the gardens. The whole effect might be called Houphouet-Bongiesque, after the French-backed former dictator of the Ivory Coast. There is also a small zoo with tigers and other animals, which we did not see. President Kadyrov said that he goes to talk to them and stroke them when he wants to relax.

Kadyrov himself is a strikingly young man, having inherited the position when his father was killed. With his jutting reddish beard, engaging grin and rolling walk, he looks like a child's idea of a genial pirate, though much of his record is hardly fit for children's ears. His staff are dressed in what I have come to think of as Caucasus-official mafia style: dark suits with unbuttoned shirt collars and loosened dark ties; and scattered among the gunmen are a number of young educated looking types. Not exactly what I'd have chosen myself to run a country, but better than the mixture of brigands and fanatics I met around previous leaders of Chechnya.

The meeting with Kadyrov took place in a partitioned section of the conference centre-only about a third of the total space, but still so large that we looked at people on the other side of the round table across an immense expanse of floor.

At first, I was astonished that no food or tea was served, since this is the Caucasus and such hospitality is just as much de rigeur as in Pakistan. Then I remembered that of course this was during Ramadan, and Kadyrov's father was after all the Grand Mufti of Chechnya, who fought against Russia in the war of 1994-96. He broke with President Maskhadov and went over to the Russian side in the late 1990s after he and his followers came under attack from the international radical Islamist group headed by Khattab and their local Chechen allies. These groups had moved to adopt the Wahabi theology of international radical Islamism, and were trying to destroy Chechnya's own Sufi Muslim traditions, represented by Kadyrov. The President mentioned that the present Mufti of Chechnya had recently visited the Middle East to visit religious leaders, seek support and exchange views and information on extremism.

It is said that Kadyrov, having been brought up in Chechnya in the 1990s, did not even speak Russian till his father went over to Moscow in 1998, but he now speaks it well, though with a marked Chechen accent. His remarks were well-prepared for effect, with much emphasis on how Chechnya, like Afghanistan, had previously become a magnet for "terrorists from all over the world," and how Russian help was necessary to defeat this.