“Chechen Reconstruction”: The Facade of Normalcy

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 8 Issue: 45

The elections Moscow organized for the Chechen Republic’s President and Parliament in 2004 and 2005, respectively, gave the facade of political legitimacy to its power over Chechnya, and Moscow also tried to give its control over the republic the appearance of legality (Neue Zürcher Zeitung, July 24, 2004). The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) had no doubts that these elections were not democratic; however, the representatives of Islamic states, with their own rich experience in carrying out pseudo-elections, recognized Chechnya’s elections as legitimate and “very democratic” (Caucasian Knot, August 8, 2004; BBC, August 27, 2004) [1].

Russia seemed to have no plan for anything in Chechnya, after having completely destroyed the entire economic foundation of a once-prosperous republic and wiping the half-million-population city of Grozny off the face of the earth. Russia seemed to feel unsure of itself in relation to the Chechen population and everything that was going on in Chechnya; it seemed that Russia was not even thinking of the possibility of remaining in Chechnya for the long term. On the contrary, more and more people concluded that the Russians might leave the republic the way they had in December 1996.

However, the policy of “Chechenization,” on which the Kremlin put its main hopes, gave the Russians a fresh impulse to try once again to consolidate their grip on Chechnya, but this time using the hands of Chechens loyal to Moscow. The authorities’ plans, as always, ran up against bureaucratic impediments. The money allotted for rebuilding an economy destroyed by war disappeared before it even reached Grozny.

Following the first military campaign in Chechnya, an entire system was developed for writing off money earmarked for rebuilding Chechnya. For example, an entire trainload of fabric was sent from Moscow Oblast to the address of a ministry in Chechnya. Upon arriving in Mozdok in North Ossetia, the fabric was written off to non-existent firms, which in turn wrote off the fabric as having been destroyed in an arson attack by militants. Meanwhile, the fabric was sent to Siberia and the Russian Far East, with one trainload being sold twice for hundreds of thousands of dollars; in a second case, all the profits went into the pocket of a high-placed official in Moscow. It is precisely for this scheme that Bislan Gantamirov, the former mayor of Grozny, was arrested for embezzling $40 million. The Zavgaev brothers—one of whom today is a Russian deputy foreign minister and the other represents Chechnya in the Federation Council—were prosecuted for embezzling more than $20 million.

In an interview published last February, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov complained that money earmarked for Chechnya was stolen on the way to Grozny. “Eighty percent of the funds earmarked for reconstruction disappear: 50 percent remains in Moscow, 20 percent in Rostov, 10 percent in Mozdok,” he said. “And only the scent of this money reaches us.” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 26, 2007). The remaining share is redirected to the Akhmad Kadyrov Public Foundation, through which reconstruction money is also apportioned. Many people sincerely believe that all the money that this foundation hands out is Ramzan Kadyrov’s money; no one asks where a regional foundation could get hold of such sums of money for the republic’s reconstruction.

People are tired; they see everything, but only want to hear what soothes them. The region, however, is not calming down. War continues, but already on a different battlefield—the minds of the people. A war is going on for the mind of the ordinary Chechen. In order to receive his support, Moscow has agreed to close its eyes to many things. Putin needs a “peaceful” Chechnya, not one endlessly at war, and therefore he tolerates much of what officials in Chechnya are doing.

This seeming idyll is maintained by the full support of Putin, who is making it possible for his protégé in Chechnya to put a good face on things, including by agreeing to let money to pass through the Akhmad Kadyrov Public Foundation.

The entire republic has been turned into a construction site. This, however, is nothing but the façade of everything that was destroyed by Russian forces. Rather than destroy the remains of the ruins that could not be restored, the Chechen authorities went for the simplest option: they began to paint and whitewash everything that still outwardly resembled a home. In fact, these dwellings—according to the residents themselves—do not have even elementary sewer or water-supply systems. In some apartment buildings standing along painted avenues, there are not even staircases between floors. Everything is like a mirage.

All of this—the well-groomed roads and playgrounds—elicits a feeling of joy in the population, but it is a dream that they cannot transform into life. They want to see and feel only the good, not knowing that this is a temporary feeling, since the future promises nothing good for the inhabitants of Chechnya, who still live in a lawless environment in which there can be no confidence about tomorrow. It is a post-war syndrome, in which the inhabitant compares everything to the previous bombardments and zachistki (security sweeps) and thus sees changes, albeit small ones.

In Soviet times, Chechen road workers had difficulty laying approximately 40 kilometers of asphalt per year, yet more than 100 kilometers of asphalt have been laid in the past 12 month, which obviously pleases the Chechen population. It is work, although temporary, but nonetheless paid. In a republic where there is absolute unemployment, any paid work cannot but arouse positive emotions in Chechens, who were impoverished during years of war.

Playing on the religious feelings of believers in the republic, Chechnya’s leadership is actively taking part in the restoration of religious sites, and dozens of mosques have been rebuilt.

However, people’s views about what is good and what is bad change with time. Today, the population is not satisfied with what yesterday seemed to be a blessing for the republic. Salaries have been cut and more and more money is being collected through various taxes. Chechens pay for gas and electricity like everyone else in Russia despite the fact that the republic went through two terrible wars.

The authorities give priority to a person’s loyalty, not their level of education or professional qualities. A vivid example is Chechen University, which is headed by a young academic in no way noted for past creative scientific activity but who is among the supporters of Chechnya’s leader.

A cult of personality and nepotism reign in Chechnya and people today speak of the general fear that Moscow instills in Chechens through its protégés in the republic. As the independent Chechen journalist Kheda Saratova said in an interview with Germany’s Die Welt newspaper: “People here are afraid of everything; no one dares pronounce a word of criticism. The fear that someone will come for them the next day is turning them into zombies” (Die Welt, November 16).


1. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Libya and Sudan and other such “democratic” nations were among those the Russian government officially invited to observe the Chechen elections.