By Peter Lavelle
Over the past few days and weeks, there have been a series of militant attacks in Chechnya. This made news, and this is as it should be. Chechnya is a sore point for all of us who care about human rights, national identity, self-determination and peace. And the Chechnya of today is a reminder of what was wrong in the past and what can be dealt with in the present in a positive way -- step by step.
We have just returned from a week's stay in Chechnya. Many fellow journalists told us beforehand: "Don't go there. It isn't safe." We decided otherwise. What spiked our interest was the first annual Chechen international film festival, interestingly called Noah's Ark. How could a place like Chechnya host such a thing? Isn't Chechnya a war-torn and miserable destination?
The fact is that Chechnya is at a crossroads. Nothing is certain, and making predictions is an exercise in futility. But the facts on the ground are very telling. Chechnya's capital, Grozny, is almost completely rebuilt. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the center of Grozny is the most modern city in Russia. Sadly, it has to be. Grozny was wiped off the face of the earth during the course of both Chechen wars. Today the same city tells anyone with any interest at all that it proudly exists and that it is becoming prosperous.
Seeing is believing, but is it convincing?
Chechnya is ruled by one tough son of a gun -- President Ramzan Kadyrov. He is the 31-year-old strongman who was elevated to replace his father, the former anti-Moscow militant who changed sides during the second Chechen war. He was assassinated for this change of heart, which probably allows Chechens today to live as they do -- autonomously and largely in peace.
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During our stay, we were shown what the authorities there wanted us to see. We were duly impressed and very appreciative. We were warmly welcomed and treated well every step of the way. Moscow-funded reconstruction is going on around the clock, literally. A phoenix is truly emerging from the ashes. What the authorities didn't want us to visit were Grozny's still-improvised neighborhoods, and they went to great lengths to discourage us from visiting the republic's mountainous areas -- the same places where the small number of militants still challenge Kadyrov's strong-handed governance in the name of extremist Islam. The rebels' only hope now is the continuation of Chechnya's tarnished image abroad.
Who would have thought that Chechnya is learning a lot about the importance of good PR? The interest in using modern-day public opinion tactics is forcing the republic to mend its ways. Rebuilding homes and infrastructure is just as important as getting out the right message about the Chechnya of today.
Chechnya is not the great success story it wants the world to believe. No PR machine is up to muster to pull off such a feat. But every home that is built or restored speaks volumes of what is really happening. Hope and the belief in the future are returning brick by brick. To maintain the pace of reconstruction, the government on Monday committed itself to a new development program for the republic through 2012.
Business has already noted the positive changes in Chechnya. Chinese, Turkish and some European businesses are eyeing Chechnya as an investment opportunity in the energy and manufacturing sectors. The influx of meaningful foreign investment in this North Caucasus republic will be the real litmus test of progress.
Meanwhile, security is very tight in Chechnya. The vast majority of the people there only wish to see the current drive for normality to continue. Chechnya is simply an ark looking to dock in a safe port. The current trend gives reason for optimism.
Peter Lavelle is anchor of "In Context" on Russia Today, and Olga Tarbeeva is the program's executive producer. The opinions expressed in this comment are their own.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008