(GROZNY) Despite its 250,000 residents, the Chechen capital is a ghost town. Not a soul on the streets, no cars. "You must have a special pass to be allowed to get around," says an official. The only action is from the avenue next to the mosque: a group of orange-jacket-clad women are twirling brooms in a cloud of dust. All the streets in the city center have been blocked, and armed men are posted everywhere. Is the city getting ready for war? Under a state of emergency?
All of a sudden the sound of an engine breaks the silence. "It's him." Words quickly spread through the mosque's courtyard where the faithful, guards and a few invited journalists are waiting. As soon as the black Mercedes parks, they all flock to its tinted windows. A chubby man steps out: Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen leader, is there to celebrate his 35th birthday in style.
Vladimir Putin placed him at the head of the Muslim republic five years ago. Since then, Kadyrov has become the figure of the "normalization" wanted by the Kremlin after two barbaric wars between the federal army and the rebels from 1994 to 2004.
The Kremlin boss and the Chechen leader now have a father-son bond. When Kadyrov's father, mufti Akhmad Kadyrov, a Russian ally, died in an attack in 2004, Putin took the young Kadyrov under his wing. "When my father was alive, I always compared myself to him. Now the only leader that counts is Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. He is my role model ... I try to set the same policies as he does," he told Russian TV channel NTV.
Thanks to the money sent by Moscow, he turned the once destroyed Grozny into a picture-perfect city displaying its newfound wealth: luxurious SUVs, well-paved roads, perfectly cropped lawns, beauty salons to meet the Botox craze and sushi restaurants along Putin Avenue.
Grozny's architecture is extravagant. Close to the mosque, which is a pale copy of Istanbul's Hagia Sophia built by Turkish workers from 2006 to '09, there are five newly constructed skyscrapers. That's Grozny City, the business center that gives the capital a sort of Dubai feel. About 10 years ago, when the war was at its peak, dogs were eating cadavers on the nearby Minutka Square. Now it's all parks, fountains and over-the-top palaces. Grozny is no longer one of Russia's provincial towns, it has become the capital of a virtual state: Ramzanistan.
But with what money? Only Russian funds? "Allah gives us some. We don't always know exactly where the money comes from," says Kadyrov. A fierce critic of radical Islam, the Chechen leader still doesn't miss an opportunity to show off his religious ardor. Back in September, in a convertible Rolls-Royce, he triumphantly displayed a precious cup that the Prophet himself is believed to have drunk from. To greet the Rolls-Royce and the 60 black Mercedes following it, all of Grozny's students were ordered to stand on the sides of the road leading from the airport to the city center.
There is now an Islamic university and a traditional-medicine center. Many families follow the leadership of sheiks, spiritual gurus, faith healers and judges. On TV, from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m., religion students participate in the lalimun, a game show in which they must identify the origins of the different suras chosen by a jury of wise men.