- - Monday, December 26, 2011

GROZNY, Chechnya — A white stretch Hummer limousine leads an entourage of silver cars maneuvering through a mountain village in the Russian republic of Chechnya.

People on the street pause to watch as the motorcade approaches Paradise Restaurant, one of Grozny’s hot spots for wedding festivities.

“It’s a status symbol,” says limo driver Adam Lutheshev, 36, the limo company’s manager. “People want to be seen riding in this vehicle on their wedding day. Chechens only dreamed of things like this; now they are becoming available.”

In 2006, the region lay in ruins during the decadelong Second Chechen War with Russia. Since then, it has rebuilt its infrastructure, and its capital, Grozny, gleams with new skyscrapers and elite boutiques.

Today’s prosperity has bred a personality cult that flourishes around the man deemed responsible for the largely Muslim republic’s turnaround: Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov.

“We owe it to Ramzan,” says Roza Ortuseva, 30, sitting in her newly built home in downtown Grozny. “I never thought we would have electricity again. Now we have this home, a city to walk around in, and my kids have a future here. That’s thanks to Ramzan.”

From father to son

Accolades for the leader echo throughout Grozny. Huge portraits of a smiling Mr. Kadyrov — and of his late father — hang everywhere, along with signs of praise and thanks. Mr. Kadyrov denies he has had anything to do with the displays.

The 35-year-old potentate came to power in 2007, groomed by then-Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had dismissed Chechnya’s second president, Alu Alkhanov.

Mr. Kadyrov inherited power — if not his current position — from his father, Akhmad Kadyrov. A Muslim cleric and separatist leader, Akhmad Kadyrov cut a deal with Moscow after the First Chechen War broke out in 1994. That war ended in 1996; the region’s second conflict for independence began in 1999 and ended in 2009.

Akhmad Kadyrov became Chechnya’s first president in October 2003, only to be assassinated by Chechen Islamists in May 2004.

Once a separatist rebel himself, Ramzan Kadyrov is finishing the job his father left undone. He has managed to silence dissent, pacify the breakaway republic and embark on a massive reconstruction campaign.

Meanwhile, human rights groups accuse him of torture, kidnapping and murder.

“Large-scale war in Chechnya is over; however, the conflict has not been resolved,” said Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, project director of the International Crisis Group, an independent aid organization.

“Today, Chechnya is a dictatorship. Ramzan Kadyrov fully controls its social, economic, political space. He is the only North Caucasus leader who also controls security services on his territory,” she said. “Many violations of law largely go unreported due to the prevailing climate of fear.”

Prosperity for some

That reality seems far away from the inside of the neoclassical Paradise Restaurant, where revelers filter into a large dance hall full of tables festooned with golden goblets, spoon holders made of Bohemian glass in silver frames, and jars of sweets.

The bride, 17, stands at the front of the dance floor in a silk dress embroidered with gold thread and seed pearls, her blond hair pulled back and decorated with diamond ornaments.

“That’s in fashion right now,” says Farida Mazayeva, one of the party guests, dressed in a flowing Chanel dress and balancing on 6-inch stilettos. “All of the girls here wear their best outfits. It is the one place we can show off.”

An average wedding in modern-day Chechnya costs $3,000 to $20,000 — a fortune in a region where 65 percent of the population is unemployed and the annual per-capita income is $7,000.

However, the groom’s family in this wedding are members of a new economic class in Chechnya. The groom’s father works in what he describes as the “business” sector, which for some Chechens means pockets of seemingly overnight wealth.

That is reflected in Chechnya’s urban landscape as it undergoes a face-lift after the devastation of two wars. Beauty salons and boutiques glitter along Putin Avenue, Grozny’s main thoroughfare.

There are a restored university, a new hospital and a modern shopping center, where youths smoke water pipes and watch 3-D movies.

“Our city is being rebuilt,” says Zaurbek Gasaev, assistant to the rector at the Chechen State University. “There’s a new trend of cafes and shopping centers opening. The Chechnya I knew is just a memory now. This is the new Chechnya.”

Moscow has poured billions of dollars into the new Chechnya, restoring the capital and maintaining peace. That investment is most apparent in Grozny City, a cluster of mammoth structures beside Europe’s largest mosque, in downtown Grozny, which opened in October.

Still dangerous

“This is the base of luxury,” says Taj Eddin Sultan, who manages Hotel Grozny, Chechnya’s first five-star hotel. “But I am afraid if Chechnya keeps building like this, it will lose its identity. Grozny will just be another Dubai.”

The complex next to the mosque opened only recently, and its buildings are practically empty, yet across the way, construction for Grozny City 2, another group of skyscrapers, is under way already.

There also is an ambitious plan to develop tourism in Chechnya, a radical makeover for a region better known for suicide bombings, kidnappings and brutal warfare.

Despite the new prosperity, Grozny still can feel like a war zone. Although the Russian government insists war is over, gunbattles are common and kidnappings and disappearances still occur with alarming regularity.

Much of the violence, however, has spilled over to the neighboring Russian republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan, which see weekly terrorist attacks and shootouts.

In Chechnya, local authorities, not militants, are thought to be behind most of the abductions and killings and, more recently, the burning of houses belonging to relatives of suspected separatists, analysts say.

“Today, Chechnya is the poshest [spot] of the North Caucasus, with the most expensive cars cruising Grozny and most fashionably dressed ladies strolling its freshly restored streets,” Ms. Sokirianskaia said. “But the insurgency is still very active in Chechnya … which means it is still among the most dangerous places in Europe.”

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