New Violence May Cut Short Chechnya's Modest Progress
By Peter Baker
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 12, 2004; Page A13
GROZNY, Russia, May 11 -- An amazing thing happened here a few weeks ago. Traffic lights went back on.
No more than a half-dozen of them, but in a city of rubble where so little works, they were a potent symbol of change. After years of war, the battered capital of Chechnya has been slowly climbing out of the abyss in recent months. New cafes and shops have opened, pensions and salaries are being paid and some demolished buildings are being rebuilt.
But new violence has shattered the tentative sense of stability. The assassination of Chechnya's pro-Russian president, Akhmad Kadyrov, in an explosion on Sunday has scared most Grozny residents off the streets and back behind locked doors where they huddle in anticipation of a new wave of mayhem.
"Life was getting a little better," said Aishat, 48, who has a roadside stand opposite a city hospital and, like others interviewed, declined to give a full name for fear of reprisal. "Now it'll all go back."
"Hope was being restored," agreed Lena, who was selling food out of the back of a truck on a dusty lot across from Grozny's main market in another part of town. "Everything was improving. Now nothing is known. . . . Only God knows what will happen."
Determined not to let what he calls his "normalization" plan for Chechnya die along with Kadyrov, Russian President Vladimir Putin made an unannounced trip to Grozny on Tuesday to assure residents of the rebellious republic that reconstruction would continue. He also ordered 1,125 more police officers sent here to stave off new disorder.
"No one will be able to reverse the reconstruction and revival of Chechnya," Putin said in televised remarks to his cabinet after returning to Moscow, where he disclosed the visit, his first to Chechnya in three years. Noting the rising hopes of ordinary Chechens, he added, "We just have to live up to this trust and help people rebuild the republic."
Putin also noted how big the job is: "I have to tell you that despite the fact that some things are being done there, it looks horrible from a helicopter."
It doesn't look any better from the ground. Once a thriving capital of 400,000, Grozny has essentially been leveled during two wars between secessionist rebels and Russian troops over the past decade. The city was subjected to a bombing campaign that was among the most intense anywhere since World War II. More than half the residents fled or died; the rest were left homeless or to pick through the wreckage.
Grozny now seems a shadow of a city, filled with crumbled structures and desperate survivors. Many buildings are simply skeletons, without walls, roofs or windows; others bear massive holes where artillery shells burst through and thousands upon thousands of pockmarks from gunfire.
Nor has the war truly ended. Although large conventional battles are no longer waged, violence visits somewhere nearly every day.
Last month a woman and her five children were killed when a bomb smashed their mountain house in southern Chechnya, according to the Moscow-based human rights group Memorial. In another town, the bodies of nine people who had been taken from their homes weeks earlier were found in a mass grave, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch.
For all of that, a certain tenuous order had taken hold since Kadyrov became president in an October election that the Kremlin manipulated in his favor. Though Kadyrov and his son, Ramzan, commanded a militia that human rights groups have accused of kidnappings and killings, residents said they were adjusting to the father's reign.
"He gave a certain sense of stability to people," said Yekaterina Sokirianskaya, an activist at Memorial. "There were certain rules of the game that were quite clear. You might not agree with them . . . but they were clear rules, and people learned them and figured out how to function in society. That gave a certain sense of security."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company