The Baddest Town in Russia

Grozny is boring. Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov doesn’t want to meet with me. Everybody else is too scared to talk. The sights can be seen in an afternoon, and the nightlife sucks. Time to evacuate.

To Ingushetia.

During Chechnya’s two wars, tens of thousands of refugees fled across the border to neighboring Ingushetia. My driver, a middle-aged Chechen, was one of them, and he still lives there. He makes a living shuttling passengers between Grozny and Ingushetia’s main city, Nazran, 100 kilometers away.

We drive past a checkpoint at the Grozny city limits, then head west on a straight highway lined with lush green pastures and orchards in full bloom. We pass another checkpoint, manned by Russian soldiers.

Lucian Kim

I ask my driver what he thinks about them.

“We absolutely don’t like them,” he says.

Ten minutes later we cross the infamous “Kavkaz” border crossing between Chechnya and Ingushetia. My driver curses it. He remembers how the guards used to extort money from travelers.

I ask him about the “bandits” who hide out in the mountains and attack the police.

“The bandits are in Moscow,” he replies. “The boys in the woods are just regular guys. They don’t touch us. They’re against Russia.”

* * *

We enter Nazran: low, one-story brick buildings, a ramshackle bus station, a billboard for the city’s new mosque. After the gilt and glitz of Grozny, Nazran exudes the nastiness of poverty, crime and neglect.

My destination is Café Candy to meet a local journalist who has promised to set up an interview with Ingushetia’s president, Yunus-bek Yevkurov. When I get out of the car, my driver warns me that it’s not safe to walk around the city. I should take a cab wherever I go.

Café Candy, the center of Nazran social life, is on the second floor of a building near the main market. The lighting is low, and jazz plays in the background. The walls are decorated with pictures of London and New York – of any place but here.

Beslan, the young Ingush journalist, finally shows up. Bad news: the president is in Moscow today. I can’t really blame Beslan, since provincial leaders in the North Caucasus are at the Kremlin’s beck and call.

Similarly, when Vladimir Putin or Dmitry Medvedev pops down to the region, the rest of the world doesn’t find out until long after they’ve left again. It’s as if they were visiting occupied territory in a foreign land.

Stealth and surprise are key in the cat-and-mouse coexistence with Islamic insurgents. In 2009, Yevkurov barely survived a car-bomb attack on his motorcade in Nazran.

I was really hoping to interview him. He is the alter ego of Chechnya’s flamboyant warlord Kadyrov: a no-nonsense military man who understands the socioeconomic component in fighting terrorism. A decorated general in the Russian Army, Yevkurov has the authority to call for dialogue over force. He just doesn’t have the means.

* * *

Ruslan Badalov has Yevkurov’s phone number and says he can call him whenever he likes. The problem is that federal law enforcement bodies like the FSB and Interior Ministry don’t answer to Yevkurov. They operate with virtual impunity.

Badalov is the head of the Chechen Committee for National Salvation, which started as an anti-war organization among Chechen refugees in Ingushetia but now focuses on human rights violations.

A lawyer and former champion wrestler, Badalov served in Chechnya’s pro-independence governments. He refused to work for the Kremlin-backed government set up by Kadyrov’s father Akhmad.

Badalov supports a confederative solution to relations between Moscow and its far-flung regions.

Lucian Kim

“The entire responsibility for the fate of our small nation lies with Russia, with the Kremlin,” says Badalov. He recalls how peaceful the North Caucasus used to be during communism. There was a joke that local cops carried a cucumber and tomato in their holsters to help chase any vodka shots that might happen to come along.

There haven’t been any threats against his organization, Badalov says, but prosecutors are constantly trying to find a pretext to shut it down.

A long crack along the ceiling is the result of a car bomb that went off down the street. The violence in Ingushetia is as random as it is senseless.

* * *

“Nobody is safe,” says Magomed Mutsolgov. “There is no feeling of security. We’re sitting here drinking tea. I can’t guarantee that something won’t happen.”

I’m back in Café Candy, across from me sits Mutsolgov, a businessman who became a human rights advocate after his younger brother disappeared without a trace in 2003. Mutsolgov, not a small man, has been attacked four times.

When he started his work, Mutsolgov believed that justice was possible.

“Now I’m working to preserve the gene pool of my people, to stop them from killing each other,” Mutsolgov says. “That’s my main task.”

If he could live his life again, he probably wouldn’t choose the same path, he says wearily.

Only a tenth of the young men who join the armed underground are actually committed to creating an independent Islamic state, Mutsolgov says. Most of the rest are seeking revenge for kidnappings, torture or killings by the authorities. They could be won back. A general amnesty would be a first step toward that end.

But Mutsolgov has little hope that anything will change.

“The money is stolen, with a chunk taken by Moscow bureaucrats. The budget money never reaches the intended recipients,” he says.

“There is no money. There are no thieves. Nobody gets punished.”

* * *

I book into the empty Hotel Assa, built on an artificial lake at the edge of town. In 2007, Oleg Orlov, of the Moscow-based Memorial human rights group, and three TV journalists were abducted from the hotel, driven to a field and beaten by masked men.

Lucian Kim

I take dinner in the gloomy hotel restaurant. There’s no beer, just Russian cognac. I go to bed.

The next morning I order a taxi to take me to the airport at Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia. The driver of a beat-up Passat shows up.

In a quarter of an hour we’re at the border crossing to North Ossetia. Interior Ministry troops are pulling over every car and opening trunks. A burly soldier in a blue camouflage uniform disappears into the guardhouse with my passport.

Inside, a thickset Russian officer is thumbing through it. He can’t find my Russian visa.

“You’ve been everywhere in the world,” he says. I’m not sure if I hear envy or suspicion in his voice. I show him the right page. As I leave, I notice that the window of the guardhouse is framed by photocopies of wanted posters for terrorists, most of them women in headscarves.

“You’ve been everywhere,” says the officer. I’m not sure if I hear envy or suspicion in his voice.

It’s a provincial boundary that feels like an international border crossing. Ossetians are Christian and see Russians as protectors from hostile neighbors. After a five-day war in 2008, Russian soldiers were received as liberators when they ended Georgian rule over the neighboring territory of South Ossetia.

Ossetians view their Ingush neighbors with suspicion not only because of religious differences and a simmering territorial dispute. In 2004, a group of Chechen and Ingush terrorists crossed into North Ossetia, taking an entire school hostage in Beslan and killing more than 300 people.

In fact, Beslan is exactly where we’re going, since Vladikavkaz airport is located there. The airport access road leads past the City of Angels, the cemetery where the victims of the Beslan terrorist attack are buried.

Lucian Kim

All the tombstones are made of a reddish brown marble, with portraits of the dead etched into them. A school desk and bench flank the graves of children. There are vases with flowers everywhere. Toys are propped up on the edge of the fence.

My driver, an Ingush, is unmoved. He waits for me on the parking lot, smoking.

An emergency drill seems to be taking place at the airport. Interior Ministry troops are posted along the road, and fire engines and ambulances are parked in front of the terminal.

The guards are letting only two passengers at a time into the building.

Lucian Kim

That’s fine. There’s no way I’m going to miss my flight back to Moscow.

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