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Chechnya Hangs On to Uneasy Peace


Wars of independence from Russia have been waged in the republic of Chechnya since the 19th century. Two of them have been fought in the past 14 years. VOA Moscow Correspondent Peter Fedynsky recently visited the Chechen capital, Grozny, and reports an uneasy peace has settled over people that remain proud of their ethnic heritage, but tired of war.

Chechen leaders today often speak in categorical terms, saying their small republic will forever be part of Russia; that will remain in the hearts of Chechens for eternity; and that local election turnout misses 100 percent participation by a mere four-tenths of one percent.

Chechen Central Election Committee chief Ismail Baikhanov explains the near perfect figure, which is typically associated with falsified elections in authoritarian states.

Baikhanov says the voter turnout represents trust in the incumbent authorities. He adds that positive changes in the republic over the past two years compel every citizen to participate in the electoral process.

Portraits of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, his slain father and Russian leader Vladimir Putin dot the landscape, hang in schools and government offices and greet passengers at the Grozny airport.

The 31-year-old Chechen leader, an amateur boxer, lists his priorities.

Kadyrov says security comes first, then construction, and the economy. For this, he says his administration has developed a strategy, procedures, and deadlines, which he says he keeps.

Chechen officials give President Kadyrov credit for rebuilding cities destroyed during the two most recent wars. Grozny shows few battle scars and authorities in nearby Shali boast that their heavily damaged city was rebuilt in a mere three months.

But a heavily armed and visible police presence betrays continuing tension in the mountainous republic.

The Interfax news agency reports interior ministry forces conducted 2,000 operations against Chechen rebels in the past year, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in January that Chechnya remains too dangerous for independent travel by journalists.

Accordingly, his ministry recently sponsored a strictly supervised 48-hour tour for foreign correspondents, allowing only 90 minutes to mingle with people in Grozny.

A quick visit to a market revealed that many people are tired of war but not in agreement with official claims of popular support and economic success. However, not a single individual would say so on camera, citing fear of retribution.

Complaints ranged from unemployment, homelessness, corruption, police shakedowns of shopkeepers, and frustrated aspirations of independence from Russia.

Chechen pride is expressed by young and old alike - a rookie TV journalist who resents demeaning Russian terms for people from the Caucasus; an elderly man choked with emotion at the indignity of mass deportation of Chechens after World War II; and school teacher Asma Arsanova who laments damage to her native language and culture.

Arsanova says she tells children she too is a product of Soviet times, when the Chechen language was restricted. She says they use dictionaries to look up Chechen terms they do not know, adding that she does not hide her ignorance of certain words.

Chechens have been fighting Russians since the mid-19th century, when czarist troops invaded their land. Chechnya declared independence after World War I and fought against Soviet troops during World War II. As many as 100,000 people - nearly ten percent of the population - are believed to have died in the two wars since 1994. Half a million were displaced and many ethnic Russians fled the republic altogether.

President Kadyrov says Chechens now want to be part of Russia for all time.

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