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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

In Grozny, a Breath of Freedom but No Heating

GROZNY, Chechnya -- When Chechnya made the Russian Orthodox feast of Epiphany into a public holiday this week, it may have looked like a sign of liberalism in an Islamic republic. But with no heating in public buildings and near-freezing temperatures on the streets of the capital, Grozny, the real reason was evident -- another excuse to let people stay at home.

The north Caucasian republic, which officially renamed itself Ichkeria on Tuesday, is still the only region of Russia that has declared independence and struck out on its own. Last month it was the only territory to boycott the Russian parliamentary elections.

Chechnya is finding its third winter outside Moscow's embrace the bitterest yet. The streets of Grozny are deserted after 6 P.M., with people afraid to go out after dark. Gunshots punctuate the evenings as residents sit at home, huddled in coats in their unheated homes.

The official economy has ground to a halt, while a small minority, overlooked or helped by the government, is flourishing.

Factories are at a standstill, while hospital staff and all public sector employees have not been paid since last summer. State shops are virtually empty.

In the bazaar, meanwhile, hi-fis, Italian dresses and perfumes are on sale next to the oranges and chickens. Ruslan, a grinning trader who with his three-day-old stubble and felt hat looks like an extra from "The Godfather," said he could arrange a machine gun for 600,000 rubles ($388).

A mullah in one of Grozny's mosques, one of the few figures to keep up his criticism of the government since the opposition was violently dispersed last June leveled the blame for this "chaos" firmly at Dzhokhar Dudayev, Chechnya's hardline leader.

"He has done nothing for the republic," the mullah said. "He hasn't built a single school or hospital. He hasn't built a single mosque."

The latest attempt to protest to the government, a conference of the teips, the hundred or so family clans to which all Chechens belong, was twice canceled. Armed guards prevented its first scheduled meeting in a Grozny theater and a second attempt in the provincial town of Shali was also canceled.

In his eighth-floor office at the gigantic government house that dominates the city center -- formerly the local party headquarters -- Vice President Zelimkha Yandarbiyev shrugs off the economic mayhem as "temporary."

It was in this office that Yandarbiyev, 41, a nationalist poet turned politician, received Vladimir Zhirinovsky last Sept. 6, when the Russian ultranationalist was one of the guests invited to celebrate the second anniversary of Chechen-Ingushetia's declaration of independence.

Later that night a banquet was held, dubbed "dinner of the four presidents" because sitting at one table with Dudayev were his friend Zviad Gamsahkhurdia, the deposed president of Georgia, who has since died, apparently by his own hand; Ruslan Aushev the Afghan war veteran president of Ingushetia, which has split from Chechnya and stayed within the Russian Federation; and Zhirinovsky, who has ambitions to be president of Russia.

Zhirinovsky "did not deny the Chechens their rights and their right to form an independent state," Yandarbiyev said.

Since the dinner, however, as the economy has crumbled further, events to the north have changed the map of Chechen politics again. Zhirinovsky has become a serious political force and a new Russian Constitution has been adopted, downgrading the status of the country's 21 ethnically defined republics, supposedly including Chechnya.

"The new Constitution divides us even further from Russia," said Yandarbiyev. "This Constitution cannot be accepted by peoples when it is denying their rights."

In light of what is viewed locally as a Russian constitutional threat to Chechnya, opposition to Dudayev, which was dispersed last June after a failed attempt to remove the president, has lost more ground.

"The equation of the republics with the regions has allowed the local politicians here to pursue their hard line with Russia," said Said-Khamzat Nunuyev, a former deputy in the Russian Supreme Soviet and critic of the Chechen government.

Nunuyev said he thought the best future for Chechnya would be an agreement of "special status" in the Russian Federation "in such a way that the intelligentsia is not accused of betrayal." But he said he feared this was a long way off.

"After suffering tsarism and communism, the people haven't breathed the air of freedom enough," Nunuyev said.

Aziz Zhebrailov, 66, a former collective farm worker with a row of gold teeth and a robust voice, is still enjoying breathing this new air.

At the age of 16 he was deported for 13 years to Kazakhstan with the whole of the Chechen people, an experience he will never forget.

"It's better to die than lose our independence," he said.