In strong­man's grip, Chech­nya looks to be­come un­likely tourist draw

'It is more beau­ti­ful than Las Ve­gas'

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

At night­time in the Chechen cap­i­tal of Grozny an im­mense foun­tain lights up and its jets of wa­ter dance to the mu­sic of Ce­line Dion. "It is more beau­ti­ful than Las Ve­gas," says the city's mayor Mus­lim Khuchiyev. For most peo­ple, the Chech­nya re­gion in Rus­sia's volatile North Cau­ca­sus brings to mind a dark his­tory and grim present. The moun­tain­ous repub­lic was the scene of two bru­tal sep­a­ratist wars against Moscow that left tens of thou­sands dead and Grozny dev­as­tated. Now, de­spite spo­radic at­tacks from a lin­ger­ing Is­lamist in­sur­gency, mainly-Mus­lim Chech­nya has largely been paci­fied. But the cost of peace has been plac­ing the re­gion un­der the iron-fisted con­trol of Ramzan Kady­rov, a for­mer rebel turned Krem­lin loy­al­ist who crit­ics say has carved out his own fief­dom through tor­ture and ram­pant abuses.

The re­gion has un­der­gone ma­jor re­con­struc­tion fu­elled by vast sums of money from the Krem­lin that has seen Grozny trans­formed from an empty shell to a glit­ter­ing show­case of il­lu­mi­nated sky­scrapers and mam­moth mosques. And while few may be­lieve it pos­si­ble, the au­thor­i­ties un­der Kady­rov now in­sist they are look­ing to turn Chech­nya into an un­likely tourist draw. On a tightly-con­trolled visit last week, for­eign jour­nal­ists were sup­posed to in­ter­view Kady­rov af­ter ev­i­dence emerged of a crack­down on gay men in the deeply con­ser­va­tive re­gion.

Af­ter the strong­man leader skipped out of the en­counter at the last mo­ment of­fi­cials in­stead used the op­por­tu­nity to push Chech­nya's claims as an at­trac­tive des­ti­na­tion for vis­i­tors. "Re­cently peo­ple have been spread­ing lies about our repub­lic, say­ing we tor­ture gays, vi­o­late hu­man rights and that it is dan­ger­ous to come here" said in­for­ma­tion min­is­ter Jam­bu­lat Umarov. "But this is com­pletely false and we are go­ing to show you that tourists are wel­come."

Ac­cord­ing to the re­gion's tourist board, some 100,000 vis­i­tors came to Chech­nya last year. Like many of the claims of­fi­cials here make that fig­ure is hard to con­firm. The au­thor­i­ties rou­tinely ma­nip­u­late statis­tics to give a flat­ter­ing im­age of Kady­rov's rule. Tourist board of­fi­cial Dag­mara Isakova in­sisted, how­ever, that the re­gion is putting in place the in­fra­struc­ture to han­dle an in­flux of tourists. "We are build­ing a lot of ho­tels and leisure zones, we are de­vel­op­ing tourism on a ma­jor scale," she said.

"We are get­ting pre­pared to sat­isfy any de­mands vis­i­tors may have." The few tourists that can be found wan­der­ing the streets of Grozny say they thought long and hard be­fore vis­it­ing. "My brother was a sol­dier dur­ing the sec­ond Chechen war and when he found out I was com­ing for three days he said 'you're mad, they'll kill you'," Mus­covite Nadiya Aly­onova, 53, said. In­stead, when she ar­rived Aly­onova said that she was "pleas­antly sur­prised" by Grozny.

De­spite its phys­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion, it is dif­fi­cult to es­cape the in­se­cu­rity that has swirled in the re­gion. Heav­ily armed Chechen forces pa­trol the streets in large num­bers and ap­pear al­ways on alert. In De­cem­ber 2016 fierce gun bat­tles with rebel fight­ers erupted in cen­tral Grozny, with a sub­se­quent se­cu­rity op­er­a­tion leav­ing a re­ported 11 in­sur­gents dead. Tatyana Taplova, who was vis­it­ing from Moscow with her fam­ily, said that she felt sure that it was safe to visit the cap­i­tal city.

"There are lots of po­lice in the streets, noth­ing can hap­pen," said the 49-year-old teacher. But with rebels still op­er­at­ing in pock­ets around the re­gion, few ap­pear will­ing to ven­ture out­side Grozny and up into the spec­tac­u­lar Cau­ca­sus moun­tains nearby. "We de­cided not to go up into the moun­tains in or­der to avoid any risks," Taplova said.

'A fa­cade'

Sit­ting in the shade of a para­sol, 70-year-old Koka has set up a stall sell­ing sou­venirs of Grozny to try to cash in on the nascent flow of tourists. But de­spite the claims from the au­thor­i­ties, she in­sists there is still only a tiny trickle of peo­ple will­ing to visit the re­gion from out­side. "No one comes, I sell al­most noth­ing," she said. "What is the point of their empty ho­tels? Why don't the au­thor­i­ties build more fac­to­ries so that my sons can find work?" "All of this is a fa­cade. Tourists don't see the re­al­ity, they don't see how we live."

Ibragim, a stu­dent of po­lit­i­cal sciences in Ber­lin who fled the war and has come back for the hol­i­days, said that "this story of de­vel­op­ing tourism is to please the Rus­sians." The au­thor­i­ties "want to show that ev­ery­thing here is go­ing well and un­der con­trol," he said. — AFP

Peo­ple stand un­der the dome of the Heart of Chech­nya - Akhmad Kady­rov Mosque, one of the largest mosques in Rus­sia, in cen­tral Grozny. — AFP pho­tos

A Chechen Mus­lim prays in the Ay­mani Kady­rova Mosque built in hi-tech style in the city of Ar­gun, sec­ond largest city of Chech­nya.

A photo shows clouds in the fore­ground near a his­tor­i­cal Chechen guard tower un­der con­struc­tion out­side the vil­lage of Ve­deno, about 60 km from Grozny.

A woman cleans inside the Heart of Chech­nya - Akhmad Kady­rov Mosque.

A man walks past a ban­ner show­ing a woman dressed in Is­lamic clothes on an av­enue named af­ter Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin in cen­tral Grozny.

Chechen peo­ple per­form a tra­di­tional dance in the vil­lage of Kezenoyam.

A woman walks past the Heart of Chech­nya mosque in cen­tral Grozny .

A woman walks past a shop sell­ing Is­lamic clothes for women on an av­enue named af­ter Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin in cen­tral Grozny.

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