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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ravaged Land Sees Scant Relief From Peace

First in a series of articles on postwar Chechnya. Tomorrow, the seeds of reconstruction.


GROZNY -- The new government house on Kalashnikov Street has no windows, no furniture and no heating.


"Maskhadov has just one table and one chair," Visradi Albasov, 31, the fighter in charge the building's guard, said of the new rebel Prime Minister Aslan Maskhadov. As the cold, damp afternoon wore on, Albasov had to send one of the guards over to a house opposite to ask for some hot tea.


Nearly three months after they seized control of the Chechen capital, rebel fighters are facing perhaps their grimmest test -- how to govern a republic that is devastated physically and economically and to win elections with zero finance.


The war, it seems, is well and truly over now. Few believe serious fighting will start up again any time soon, and rebel commanders such as Maskhadov have traded their fatigues for business Moscow is still hesitating to finance its recovery.


Tens of thousands of Chechens are homeless, including the president, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, who lives in a borrowed house in the foothills of the southern mountains, his belongings and papers stacked around him in tattered suitcases tied up with string.


There is barely a single undamaged building in downtown Grozny, and if gas and electricity are back on, water still has to be fetched in buckets. In some villages in the south there is not a house left standing, and the backyards and orchards are sewn with explosives and mines.


Meanwhile, Moscow is guarding a monopoly on assistance for Chechnya, but so far has not parted with so much as a kopek of emergency funds.


Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin and his deputy Boris Berezovsky, now in charge of "settling Chechnya," have been dashing about holding meetings, preparing for a visit by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin himself.


But the weeks of talk are turning into months, leaving the rebel government, led by Maskhadov and many of his top commanders, to get on with the job as best it can.


The leadership has set a date, Jan. 27, for presidential and local elections and has asked people to help clear up the city, and the traffic police to start working, even while explaining that it cannot pay them.


Workers in bright orange jackets are out resurfacing the streets, pitted with bomb craters, "out of enthusiasm," as one said. They have cleared the main streets of the debris of August's battles and filled the worst bomb craters in the roads, ignored by the Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen administrations for so long.


The former rebel fighters, back in their capital city after 20 months of fighting and after booting the pro-Moscow government led by Doku Zavgayev, are certainly enjoying themselves. Used to tough conditions, they still communicate with walkie talkies in the absence of a telephone system and rely largely on local goodwill.


The deputy commander for Grozny, Aslanbek Abdulkhadzhiyev, a roguish character with a beard and gold teeth and who was one of the leaders of the hostage raid on the Russian town of Budyonnovsk last year, was signing permits in his bare office.


Asked how he liked his new desk job, he grinned and said, "I like living in Zavgayev's apartment. It has bullet proof glass in the windows; I tested it out with my pistol."


But with the war over, Maskhadov knows that public relief at the outbreak of peace will only last so long.


Crime is the most pressing problem with one or two murders committed daily in the city, and the consequences of war -- looting, robbery and racketeering -- still continuing.


The young fighters are barely coping, the commandant of Grozny, Alsanbek Ismailov, admitted. "These guys know how to fight, but they are not police. They do not know how to arrest people by law and what to do, and so on. I think the professionals should do it."


He was pushing for the police to take over from his fighters, but although Moscow has agreed to the Chechens forming a police force, it has not come up with any of the vaguely promised funds.


The fighters have fought unpaid, but the police cannot be expected to, said Chechen Interior Minister Kazbek Makhashev.


Meanwhile the Russian population is dwindling ever faster, as longtime residents leave in a panic, finally convinced that there is no place for them in Chechnya following the Russian withdrawal. Some are reduced to scavenging to survive, pensions a far off dream.


Nevertheless Grozny is the most relaxed it has been since the war began. There are few guns in the streets and only occasional bursts of shooting at night, which most residents explain away happily as wedding celebrations.


The Russian posts around town have been dismantled, tanks no longer roar through the streets. The only Russian soldiers seen are those accompanying Chechens on joint patrols. The soldiers admit they just go along for the ride. "They are in charge, we just watch," said Misha, a member of the St. Petersburg OMON.


And even though Russian positions still line the Rostov-Baku road right across the republic, the soldiers stay inside their posts and generally bother no one. The posts are slowly being dismantled; two were removed in one ten-day period.


But perhaps the biggest change is that there is no curfew, and people now dare to walk and drive around after dark.


"We have already stopped being frightened," said Asya Udugova, a widow and mother of four who helps run Golos Materi, a fund for orphaned families. "If my daughter-in-law is sick in the night, I can take her to the hospital."