Between Myth and Reality: Life in Kadyrov’s Potemkin Village

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 8 Issue: 16

Massive construction and rebuilding projects are underway across the entirety of Grozny. The first order of business has been the reconstruction of the large apartment buildings, even though many of the multi-story structures are still standing empty. President Ramzan Kadyrov, the new pro-Russian head of the republic, had declared while still a prime minister that 2007 would be the year of Grozny’s rebuilding. With work underway in all parts of the city, it has been heavily emphasized that the funding is coming from “non-budgetary” sources. The biggest landmark in the Chechen capital today is the central street of the city named in honor of Akhmad Kadyrov (previously named “Victory Street”), the head of the republic killed in May 2004. Both sides of the road leading from the center of the city to Minutka Square are lined with high-rise buildings, their walls covered with fresh stucco and new modern windows, and their clearly visible freshly installed metal roofs. But there is almost nothing behind these glistening facades. There have been almost no repairs to the entranceways or the interiors, and most of the apartments stand empty. Some of the locals call the buildings “Chechen Potemkin villages” and say that these are simply stage decorations intended to create the feeling of a peaceful life “and the rebirth of Grozny from the ruins.”

“Today, thousands of families in Chechnya don’t have a place to live, but many apartments in Grozny are empty,” says Artur, a 54-year old construction worker from Grozny. “I’m not even talking about the fact that only a few very rich people can afford to live in the center, and let’s be honest – we don’t have that many rich people. The fact is that some owners of the restored apartments don’t want to return.” The main reason for this reluctance, according to the worker, is that many people fear they will eventually die under the ruins of the “reconstructed” homes.

“These buildings stood roofless for many years, under rain and under snow. The moisture is still there; it has seeped into the concrete and may have caused cracking during the winters. Such cracks might be invisible from the outside, but there’s no way to know what’s happing inside the walls. The slightest earthquake will cause many of the high-rises to crumble into dust. A friend of mine told me that in the center of the city, the commission responsible for accepting the work from the construction companies simply refused to take charge of eight buildings. Superficial repairs in such buildings – replacing windows and doors, re-plastering the walls – do not guarantee anything. I wouldn’t risk my life by living in one of these buildings.”

According to official statistics, however, 110 such residential buildings with 530,800 square meters of space are scheduled to be restored. Sixty of these are scheduled to be completed in 2007, and 44 of the 60 are in the city of Grozny. At the moment, rebuilding is underway in all four districts of the Chechen capital, with the “new methods” being an inescapable part of the process. Unofficial sources indicate that the president of the republic has entrusted each of the heads of Chechnya’s regions with rebuilding at least two multi-story apartment buildings. The financing, it should be noted, has to come from the officials themselves.

An employee of one of the republic’s ministries shared the following: “I’m not going to name names, but my close relative, who occupies a high-ranking post within the republic’s government, explained to me just how Grozny is being rebuilt. Kadyrov has levied a sort of tithe on each of his officials, with the obligation to use personal (stolen, of course) money to finance the reconstruction of one or two buildings in Grozny. This is being billed as ‘the help provided by the regions to the rebuilding effort’ and is used extensively in the capital.”

He added: “It’s impossible to confirm or deny this information, since it’s unlikely that a high official will want to risk his profitable position. Everyone remembers the fate of the former director of Chechnenstroi [the Chechen state-owned construction organization] Shamsadi Dudaev. (Dudaev oversaw the rebuilding in Grozny and was sacked several months ago. Much of his property was confiscated, including 15 apartments in the capital, a mansion in his home village of Bachi-Yurt – later converted into a kindergarten – and a large sum of money estimated at one or two million dollars.) So everyone is quiet and does what they’re told.”

The construction projects have another ugly side. Many of the workers involved in the rebuilding claim that they are not being paid their full wages and that all of the supervisors, starting with the foremen, are engaged in theft.

“They promised to pay us at least 400 rubles a day, but in reality we get no more than 250. Those that complain are told to find another job. And where, tell me, can you find another job in today’s Chechnya?” asks Idris Masaev, a man currently working on one of the projects in the Staropromyslovsky district of Grozny. “So everyone has to accept this lawlessness. Can it be true that the men in charge of the republic don’t know what happens in construction, don’t how people are shamelessly robbed, how workers are forced to sign for money they never received in order to keep the small income they still get?”

Another serious issue is that of the so-called “refused housing.” “Refused housing” refers to those apartments and houses that were surrendered to the government by the owners who were leaving the republic. Originally, this housing was redistributed by the heads of Grozny’s districts, but later came under the full control of the mayor’s office. With the payment of a nominal fee, some paperwork and a certification from neighbors indicating the absence of one’s own housing, any resident could receive one of the “refused” properties from the municipal fund. Additional payments of several thousand dollars always had to be made in order to ensure the success of the transaction, with the registration of a two-bedroom apartment costing $3,000 two to three years ago. In an attempt to make more easy money, officials responsible for redistributing “refused housing” started to sell these apartments and houses left and right. Often, the same property would be sold to several different individuals, leading to numerous scandals and court cases.

“I was told that in the Lenin district, either eight or ten people are laying claim to the same apartment. The amazing thing is that all of them have papers,” recounts a clerk from a notary’s office in Grozny. “Some got their papers in the district administration and others from the mayor’s office. And there are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of such incidents.”

Recently, Ramzan Kadyrov ordered the creation of a special commission headed by Muslim Khuchiev, the mayor of Grozny. The members of the commission, which includes clergy, officials from the district administrations of Grozny and from the security services, are supposed to verify the claims to “refused housing.” Those found to be illegally occupying property will be asked to vacate it as soon as possible. Such a commission, however, does not guarantee that any sort of order will be established. The fact that the mayor’s office in Grozny started to make all decisions regarding “refused housing” simply meant that the flow of bribes was now being redirected from the offices of the district administrators to the mayor’s office. It seems that papers guaranteeing ownership will now be sold by the commission members.

The rapid pace of rebuilding in Grozny and the attempt to decisively curtail some of the corruption are viewed positively by the average person. That said, there is still a lot of skepticism. “Of course it’s nice that they’re rebuilding the city,” says 55-year old Grozny resident Takhir Bibulatov. “But everything is being done in such a hurry, the quality of the work is terrible, the workers aren’t paid, and let’s not even talk how they get money for all of it. Almost all of the government employees have their salaries docked. Can that be right? Are ordinary people guilty for the fact that the Russian military wiped Grozny off the map? Let those who destroyed the city rebuild it. Let Moscow, and specifically the Kremlin and the Russian Ministry of Defense, do it.”

The restored center of Grozny is the pride of the current leadership of the republic. Almost all of the delegations visiting Chechnya – whether foreign ones or those from Moscow – are driven along the central streets of the capital and shown the reconstructed buildings and told of the many achievements that are being made in building a peaceful life in the republic. But in reality, things are not as smooth as the local pro-Russian authorities and the government in Moscow would like for everyone to believe.

Bands of guerrillas still operate in the forest-covered mountains of the republic’s south. They damage property and attack members of the armed forces and the security services. Among the young people in the republic, many are still ready to join the men in the guerrillas. A few weeks ago, there were firefights between the security services and small groups of insurgents. Two of the guerrillas were killed – one in the mountainous Shatoi region, the other one in the foothills of the Urus-Martan region. Both men were born in Grozny.

“The idea of an independent Ichkeria isn’t gone, regardless of what the official propaganda says,” explains Aslan, a 27-year old student from one of the colleges of Grozny University. “A whole generation of Chechens grew up knowing Dzhokhar Dudaev, Aslan Maskhadov, Shamil Basaev, Ruslan Gelaev and many others leaders that gave their lives for the same cause. The idea of independence can’t be erased from the minds of the Chechens, no matter how hard the Kremlin tries.”

“Tsarist Russia, the Bolsheviks and now this supposedly democratic Russian Federation have all brought only grief, blood and tears to the Chechen nation. Can we really forget the bombings, the artillery barrages and the rocket attacks that were directed at Grozny and the other towns and villages of our republic? Can we forget the hundreds of thousands who were killed, crippled, abducted and driven from their homes? Can we forget the “police actions” and the brutality of the ‘kadyrovtsy’ (as the locals call members of the local security services), who slice off the heads of their enemies and who take whole families hostage?”

“Today, Moscow manages to control the situation by using the force of arms and the help of a handful of traitors. But sooner or later, the Kremlin and its puppets will be forced to answer for what they did. Today, the people are frightened and cheated and are silent. But I believe it was President Lincoln who said that you can fool some of the people all the time, and you can fool all of the people some of the time, but you can never fool all of the people all of the time. The questions of war and of peace have not been resolved here, and time will put everything in order.”