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Pedestrians walk past portraits of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov on a Grozny street March 9, 2012. (Mark MacKinnon/The Globe and Mail/Mark MacKinnon/The Globe and Mail)
Pedestrians walk past portraits of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov on a Grozny street March 9, 2012. (Mark MacKinnon/The Globe and Mail/Mark MacKinnon/The Globe and Mail)

In rebuilt Grozny, an awkward peace with Russia Add to ...

It looks triumphant: Vladimir Putin’s portrait hanging over a peaceful commercial street in Grozny, the capital of a Chechen Republic he went to war to keep as part of Russia. The boulevard was even given a new name to reinforce that impression of conquest; what was once Victory Avenue, marking the Soviet Union’s defeat of the Nazis in the Second World War, is now called Putin Avenue.

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Beneath the portrait, something has indeed been accomplished. Where once there was only rubble (I stood on Victory Avenue in wartime 10 years ago and failed to find a single building undamaged by heavy weapons fire) is now a tree-lined boulevard framed by marble-fronted buildings housing cafés, pizzerias and advertising agencies.

When Russian voters returned Mr. Putin to the presidency last week, they did so in part because he is seen as having brought something like stability to Chechnya after almost two decades of no-holds-barred warfare here that often and horrifyingly spilled over into Moscow and other Russian cities. But in Grozny, it feels like it’s the Chechens – not Mr. Putin – who got what they wanted from the wars.

Chechnya today is ruled by Chechens under a form of Islamic law. Russia has maintained its territorial integrity, but the Russians who lived here once are gone, and few have any desire to ever see Grozny again. It’s easy to wonder whether two wars and some 160,000 deaths could have been avoided if the two sides had been willing to accept the awkward compromise they have now.

It’s Ramzan Kadyrov, a one-time rebel whom human-rights groups accuse of murder and torture, who really rules Chechnya. (At the south end of Putin Avenue is the city’s main Kadyrov Square, where a neon sign reads “Thank You Ramzan for Grozny!”) He maintains something resembling stability through a constant display of arms – Kalashnikov-toting police direct traffic in the city – and by dispensing billions of rubles from the Kremlin treasury, the price Moscow pays to have Mr. Kadyrov do the dirty work of fighting Chechnya’s remaining Islamic militants.

Another part of the Faustian pact Mr. Putin struck with Mr. Kadyrov was laid plain during the presidential election. According to the official count, an astounding 99.7 per cent of Chechens cast their ballots for Mr. Putin, though it’s easy to find those who say they voted otherwise or not at all.

Stuffed ballot boxes and Putin portraits aside, the state Mr. Kadyrov is building more closely resembles a Middle Eastern sultanate than any part of the Russian Federation. Facets of sharia law are in place – it’s the only part of Russia where alcohol isn’t freely bought and sold, and women who work for the government are required to wear head scarves. And the previously flat skyline is taking on a taste of Dubai, with a clutch of soaring skyscrapers and one of the largest mosques on the continent. The lone portrait of Mr. Putin is outnumbered by hundreds of smiling pictures of Ramzan and his father, Akhmad Kadyrov, the former Chechen president who was assassinated in a 2004 bombing as he sat in the VIP bleachers of the city’s main soccer stadium.

“I was a child of war. There was nothing good in our lives. Today, people come here from other republics to shop,” said Zalina Bisayeva, the 25-year-old manager of a boutique that sells Chechen-designed men’s and women’s clothing. “Everything is better now thanks to our President, Ramzan Kadyrov.”

Most jarringly, other than a military base beside Akhmad Kadyrov Airport, there are almost no Russians to be seen. (In a cruel twist of fate, nearly all of the 200,000 Russians who once lived here were killed or driven out by their own army's repeated sieges of the city.) The signs on the streets are still in Russian, but the language of life is Chechen.

“They [Chechnya]have won a war and Russia is paying indemnities,” said Andrei Piontkovsky, a prominent Moscow-based political analyst. More than 90 per cent of the Chechen government’s official budget – just over $2-billion in 2010 – comes from Moscow, compared to just 30 per cent in some Russian regions of the country. And many of those who now serve in Mr. Kadyrov’s militia are those who once fought against the Russian presence in Chechnya, Mr. Piontkovsky said.

While most Chechens live on salaries of just a few hundred dollars a month, the Kremlin’s money has also brought a stream of celebrities to Grozny, adding to the façade of normalcy that Mr. Kadyrov has constructed. Hilary Swank and Jean-Claude Van Damme attended the warlord’s 35th birthday last fall. Diego Maradona has played soccer here. Mike Tyson also made a flying visit to meet Mr. Kadyrov, a boxing fanatic. All were paid handsomely for their time, though Ms. Swank says she has since donated her appearance fee to charity after learning of the human-rights abuses carried out by Mr. Kadyrov’s regime.

The scars of all that it took to reach this awkward compromise have been wiped from the city’s buildings, but it will take far longer to erase them from the psyches of Grozny's 270,000 remaining residents.

“I’m sure [Grozny]will soon be a nice place to live, but the war … it destroyed the hearts of the people. They still live in paranoia,” said Taj Eddin Sultan, a Syrian-born Chechen who was lured to Grozny to manage the newly built Grozny City hotel, a 32-storey tower that claims five-star service and usually has less than 10-per-cent occupancy. “There’s a fear the instability will return.”

Indeed, despite the outward calm, this is still a city where it’s not uncommon to see men with automatic weapons sitting beside you in a restaurant. Troop carriers and airport-style security gates are deployed at the main mosque every Friday so that Mr. Kadyrov can pray.

“Ramzan Kadyrov’s method of applying illegal violence [to keep control]is pushing new people underground, giving birth to a new generation of violent people,” said Alexander Cherkasov, a member of the Russian human-rights organization Memorial, which suspended work in Chechnya after one of its researchers was murdered, a killing Memorial believes was ordered by Mr. Kadyrov. (He denies the accusation.)

And the current calm in Grozny hasn’t meant an end to the attacks in Moscow. “It didn't prevent the Moscow metro suicide bombing in 2010 [which killed 40 people]or the Domodedovo [airport]explosion in 2011 [which killed 36]” said Mr. Cherkasov, a member of the Russian human-rights organization Memorial, which suspended work in Chechnya after one of its researchers was murdered.

That such violence continues even as the Kremlin pays heavily to rebuild Chechnya is taking a toll on public opinion in Russia, where 51 per cent recently told a pollster they wouldn’t be upset if Chechnya were to go its own way. Many Chechens, too, believe their problems with Moscow are not yet over.

“I must say that, so far, we have not had reconciliation. We have had promises, but we don’t have reconciliation,” said Murad Nashkoyev, 70-year-old journalist and historian who was close to the early leaders of the Chechen independence movement, Dzhokar Dudayev and Aslan Maskhadov. “It will only be better when everyone who lost a home has one. It will only be better when we know what happened to the 25,000 people who disappeared [during the war]and are still missing. When these things happen, then the war will be over.”

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