The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Chechnya opens ski resort in effort to put bad times behind it, but severe crackdown continues

Chechen regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov, center,  and other officials attend the opening ceremony of the Veduchi ski resort.
Chechen regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov, center, and other officials attend the opening ceremony of the Veduchi ski resort. (Musa Sadulayev/AP)

VEDUCHI, Russia — The contrast in Chechnya was stark.

High up on a mountaintop, Ramzan Kadyrov and his vast entourage opened Chechnya's first ski resort at Veduchi, the latest prestige project to symbolize the prosperity and peace the strongman says his rule has brought the republic.

Down below, Oyub Titiev, 60, head of the local branch of a storied human rights organization called Memorial, sat in a courtroom cage appealing his arrest on drug charges. He was promptly sent back to jail.

Up above, ministers preened and fretted over the lack of snowfall. Down below, relatives sought dental care for Titiev's fragile teeth and waited in the cold outside the courthouse.

On high, little concern was given to a year of horrifying reports about forced disappearances, extrajudicial imprisonment and politicized prosecutions.

Brazenly little, in fact.  

"We aren't stupid — I mean the Chechen authorities, we understand we don't need Titiev or any of these uncomfortable questions by planting narcotics on him," said Dzambulat Umarov, a minister in the Chechen government whose portfolio includes nationality politics and media relations. 

He spoke with journalists in a  tent surrounded by fresh-faced volunteers and knickknacks for sale. Fireworks exploded overhead. A portrait of Kadyrov on horseback, dressed like a medieval Russian knight, leaned against one wall.

"There are a million ways to close someone's mouth," Umarov said. "And planting narcotics or killing aren't necessary. Everyone has career issues, financial issues, family issues."

It was an untimely opening for Chechnya's newest tourist attraction.

Kadyrov's decade-long rule has been marked by allegations of torture and collective punishments, but reports of the imprisonment and torture of more than 100 gay men last year in Chechnya sparked public outrage and an underground effort to spirit those men from the region. 

Activists in the United States who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that in the past year, they had lobbied the Trump administration to sanction Kadyrov publicly, which it did last month by putting him on a U.S. Treasury list, and urged Facebook to kick the Chechen leader off Instagram, where he had several million followers. 

"There was a lot of desire to try to take away the thing that Kadyrov prizes the most, which is — which was — his very robust Instagram account," said one activist who helped devise the successful campaign. "He used it to try to show he was a good guy. It was his primary propaganda tool."

Titiev closely investigated a separate atrocity, first reported by the daily Novaya Gazeta, when 27 people were reportedly killed by Chechen law enforcement exactly one year before Friday's opening of the Veduchi ski resort.

Now the Chechen government seems ready to squeeze out Memorial, the last advocacy group cataloguing human rights abuses in the republic. Colleagues say that Titiev, who has headed Memorial in Chechnya since the murder of Natalia Estemirova in 2009, is being railroaded into a drug conviction that would see the father of four and former schoolteacher put in prison for 10 years. Several activists and journalists critical of Kadyrov have been sentenced on drug charges since 2014, including activist Ruslan Kataev in 2014 and journalist Zhalaudi Geriev in 2016. Both said they were tortured by police.

So there was cause for concern when it took six hours for lawyers to locate Titiev for his appeal on Thursday. When he finally appeared in court, he said he was fine, but he wore a heavy coat zipped up to his neck through the hearing and spoke in subdued tones. Friends predict a guilty verdict.

"This whole court case, everyone's playing a role and we all know the ending," said a longtime friend of Titiev's, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of safety concerns. "And in Titiev's case, I don't even have the smallest hope."

Up at the ski resort, Kadyrov had played his role. His cortege of matte-camouflage BMWs roared up the mountainside, past women swabbing their fences with mops and dump trucks (a reported 800 in total) hauling snow to the summit. Up top, there were platters of meat and plov, or pilaf, a retinue of Olympic champions and young, well-groomed volunteers speaking English. Kadyrov on stage told a crowd of several hundred, "They told us a mountain resort in Chechnya wasn't viable." 

He yelled "Akhmad is strength!" — a reference to his father, who led Chechnya until he was assassinated in 2004.

The ski resort has just one working chairlift, a half-mile long.

"This is a pretty big celebration for a small lift," said Jean-Paul Huard, a vice president at Poma, the French company that installed it.

The event was a who's who of the Chechen elite. Magomed Kadyrov, the eldest brother of Akhmad Kadyrov and the head of the region's weightlifting program, stood arm-in-arm with the head of the local prosecutor's office, which is pursuing Titiev's prosecution. Both the prosecutor and his bodyguard had donned matching, brilliant white snowsuits for the event, though neither intended to ski. 

Asked about how Chechnya could attract skiers despite its reputation for instability, the elder Kadyrov said, "Don't believe the rumors." He quoted Dante: "The devil is not so black as he is painted."

A press aide in Kadyrov's administration said foreign journalists were invited to Veduchi to show that Chechnya, racked by two wars and a long-running Islamist insurgency, is now safe and economically viable. As recently as 2009, Itum-Kale, the mountainous region 50 miles south of Grozny, saw police convoys mowed down by rebels. Now, the aide said, he hoped journalists would write about the plans for nine miles of ski trails, a luxury hotel (set to open next month) and chalets, free lessons for local children, and other boons from the $210 million investment (according to Price­waterhouseCoopers).

"I agree that there is a political concern," Huard said, "but we have to respect that in places around the world, things don't always happen the way they do in America." 

Titiev was arrested this month when police said they found 180 grams of marijuana in a plastic bag in his car. 

He doesn't smoke or drink, his sisters said, and largely kept his work to himself to avoid worrying family members.

He is "a very traditional Chechen man," one friend said, and as such wouldn't touch drugs.

Meanwhile, Memorial's office in Nazran, which it used as a base during the wars in Chechnya, was the target of an arson attack this month. So was a car used by Titiev's lawyer in neighboring Dagestan. Memorial employees have received threatening text messages. And on Wednesday, the day before his appeal, one of Titiev's lawyers disappeared.

"I think it's safe to say threats were the reason for it," said Pyotr Zaikin, another lawyer for Titiev.

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