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An Uneasy Peace Falls on Chechnya

Wars of independence from Russia have been waged in the Caucasus republic of Chechnya since the 19th century -- two of them in the past 14 years -- leaving the region in an uneasy peace.

Chechen leaders often speak in categorical terms, saying their small Caucasus republic will forever be part of Russia and that President Akhmad Kadyrov, who was assassinated in 2004, will remain in the hearts of Chechens for eternity.

Officials claim nearly complete voter turnout for elections, saying that 99.6 percent of Chechen voters routinely cast their ballots.

Chechen Central Election Committee chief Ismail Baikhanov explains the near perfect figure, which is typically associated with falsified elections in authoritarian states. "First of all, it represents trust in the incumbent authorities. At the same time, positive changes in the republic over the past two years compel every citizen to participate in the electoral process," says Baikhanov.

Portraits of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, his slain father and Russian leader Vladimir Putin dot the landscape; they 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 for the republic. "Security, then construction and the economy. We developed a strategy, procedures and deadlines. We stick to a schedule," says Kadryov.

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

But a heavily armed police presence betrays continuing tension in the mountainous republic. The Interfax news agency reports that interior ministry forces conducted two-thousand operations against Chechen rebels in the past year.

Pent-Up Frustrations

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 for mingling with people in Grozny.

A quick visit to a market revealed that many people are tired of war and not in agreement with glowing official claims of popular support and economic success. However, no one would say so on the record, citing fear of retribution.

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

The extent of unemployment among Chechnya's 1.2 million people is evident from the projected number of jobs that leaders of the republic hope to create.

Dukvakha Adbulrakhmanov, Speaker of the Chechen Parliament, says, "The greatest number of people, upwards of 40-thousand, can be drawn to agriculture. We're building a car factory for ten-thousand workers. Railroads and their infrastructure [could employ] 35-to-40-thousand people. In the future, the oil industry can absorb more than 20-thousand. Tourism: 20-, 25-thousand people."

Widespread unemployment in Chechnya coincides with shortages of professionals, including physicians, many of whom fled the war-torn republic.

Lisa Dariyeva, Deputy Medical Director at the Chechen Republican Clinic in Grozny, says the brain drain has forced remaining doctors and nurses to pick up the slack. "We don't have many physicians. We have a shortage and many Russian specialists left. Many of our doctors perform multiple tasks. So the workload for them and our nurses is huge. And it's likely to continue because doctors from Moscow and Saint Petersburg are returning home," says Dariyeva.

Coming to Terms With the Past

So far, only a few ethnic Russians have returned to Chechnya. But the Assistant Dean of the Chechen State University in Grozny, Makhmud Karimov, says he expects more to come.

"A lot of our Chechens have come back. For example, the director of the medical school who worked at a Moscow clinic was invited to return by the president and the university dean. But the Russian speakers are coming back slowly," says Karimov. "The process has begun. Right now, it's eight people. But first, leaders of the republic need to resolve the housing problem. And if they do, I think more will return."

As many as 100-thousand people -- nearly ten percent of Chechnya's population -- may have died in the two wars with Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. About a half-a-million people have been displaced.

But Chechens young and old continue take pride in their ethnic heritage -- a rookie TVjournalist resents demeaning Russian terms for people from the Caucasus; an elderly man chokes with emotion at the indignity of mass deportation of Chechens after World War Two. And school teacher Asma Arsanova laments what she says is damage to her native language and culture.

"I tell children that I too am a product of Soviet times, when our language was restricted. We are learning along with the children. Together, we use dictionaries to look up words I don't know and I don't hide the fact that I don't know certain words in Chechen," says Arsanova.

Chechens have been fighting Russians since the mid-19th century, when czarist troops invaded their land. Chechnya declared independence after World War One, fought against Soviet troops during World War Two, and twice more against Moscow since 1994.

President Kadyrov says Chechens now want to be part of Russia "until the end of time".