On March 8, the first regularly scheduled civilian passenger flight since 1999 arrived at Severny airport near Grozny, Chechnya’s capital. This airport was completely ruined during the intensive hostilities in the republic. The Russian authorities have used this event to characterize the situation in the war-turn region as returning to normal. “A lot has been done in the past several years to revive the republic and return it to peaceful life,” the pro-Russian Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov declared in his speech at the airport on March 8. “But the opening of the airport is of the greatest significance. This is a turning point in people’s minds. This means that peace has returned to the republic for good.”
Indeed, the fact that civilian flights to Chechnya have been resumed is regarded by many in Russia and in the West as another positive step toward normalization in the republic. At first glance, it seems as if ordinary people can fly to Chechnya again and there is no more war there. However, one should not forget that the civilian airport in Grozny has a unique element: unlike any other civilian airport in the world, the Chechen airport is surrounded by an enormous military base.
Before the first Chechen war in 1994, Severny airport in Grozny was the biggest airport in the North Caucasus. Since the start of the Russian invasion, Severny has turned into the second largest Russian military base in the region, the largest being the base in Khankala, near Grozny.
The Russian troops that are flown to Chechnya usually land at Severny or Khankala. The usual route of a Russian officer traveling to Chechnya is as follows: first, he flies on a military plane to the Mozdok base in North Ossetia, and then he travels by helicopter to Severny. Thousands and thousands of Russian servicemen have repeated this journey during the first and second military campaigns in Chechnya. During the first war, there were also some civilian flights to Severny, but during the second one, the airport was completely closed to civilians. Khankala became the base for the 42nd Motorized Division and Severny is home to the 46th Motorized Brigade. In fact, the brigade can also be called a division since it has 10,000 troops, which is much larger than the typical Russian army brigade.
In 2000, after the Russian army occupied Chechnya for the second time and a new pro-Russian government was put in place, the Chechen civilian administration appealed to the military to open Severny airport for civilian flights. However, the Anti-Terrorist Operational Staff in Chechnya rejected the idea. For several years, the Russian military command in Chechnya refused any plan to open a civilian airport in the region, even when such proposals came down from high-level federal structures in Moscow.
However, in 2004, when President Vladimir Putin ordered the reconstruction of Grozny to be stepped up, the prospects for opening an airport in Chechnya increased. German Gref, the federal Minister of Trade and Economic Development, ordered that Severny airport be rebuilt by January 1, 2005. However, nothing was completed by that date. In early 2006, Alu Alkhanov, the then-Chechen president, promised that flights would resume by February or March of the following year, but again nothing happened. Finally, after fierce resistance, the military agreed to allow Chechenstroi, the Chechen state-owned construction organization, to start work in Severny to prepare it for civilian flights.
However, another problem slowed down the process: corruption. According to the Russian transport police, 18.5 million rubles (around $750,000) from the funds allocated to rebuild the airport in Grozny were stolen during the period from January to September 2006 alone (FK-Novosti, October 20, 2006).
In 2006, the Russian Agricultural Bank allocated 750 million rubles (around $29 million) to the Chechen government for the airport’s reconstruction and Ramzan Kadyrov himself guaranteed that it would be used for its intended purpose. However, the military continued to sabotage the process. On September 20, 2006, a first test flight from Severny to Moscow was supposed to take place, but it was canceled for unclear reasons. After that, the press-service of the Russian military command in Chechnya made a statement denying that the airport would soon be opened for civilian flights. This suggested that the reason for the cancellation of the test flight was due to resistance on the part of security officials. Moreover, it is indeed possible that the idea of placing a civilian airport in the middle of a garrison was troublesome for the military: they simply could not imagine watching a plane, loaded with Chechen civilians, land without doing anything about it. There are also the physical constraints. It should be noted that the military base in Severny is enlarging all the time. The 46th Brigade is going to be increased by 5,000 troops this year, to 15,000 in total (Moskovsky komslomolets, September 21, 2006.). More room will have to be found for the new troops, but the civilian airport will occupy a significant part of the base.
Finally, on October 5 of last year, a flight carrying Chechen officials and VIPs, like the well-known Chechen tycoon Umar Dzhabrailov, landed at the Severny airport. It was a single flight made on Ramzan Kadyrov’s birthday and a pure act of propaganda. Following that, regular flights were repeatedly postponed. It was promised that the flights would start in January, then in February and then on March 1. Finally, a three-times-a-week civilian flight between Moscow and Grozny was inaugurated on March 8.
Can this be viewed as a peace dividend? Hardly, given that the Russian troops are still in Severny as well as other areas of Chechnya, and it seems that they are not going to be leaving the republic anytime soon. One should remember that the civilian airport was functioning during the first war, which ended with the military defeat of the Russian army in August 1996. Who can say that this will not happen again?