Chechnya woos tourists with glitzy new ski resort
With a triumphant grin, Ramzan Kadyrov pulled a lever, and the chairlift behind him started moving. “Some people were sceptical, but we proved them wrong,” the strongman Chechen leader boasted as he took his seat flanked by three bodyguards before the lift whisked him off into the fog.
Last week Mr Kadyrov officially launched the Veduchi ski resort in the remote Chechnya mountains, a massive prestige project that illustrates Moscow’s long and arduous efforts to bring a semblance of normality to this North Caucasus republic.
Russia has fought two bloody wars with Chechnya and only a constant flow of money from Moscow and the granting of far-reaching powers to Mr Kadyrov have induced the restive republic to maintain a formal association with the Russian Federation.
The new resort is less than 30km from Shatoi, a mountain village which was at the centre of fierce battles with Russian troops in 1996 and 2000. Even now men with machine guns stand guard at the roadside. Signs further up into the mountains warn: “Shooting strictly forbidden”.
The authorities are keen to bury any trace of the war under the glitzy project aimed at boosting Chechnya’s economy and polishing up its image. North Caucasus Resorts (NCR), the state-owned investor, says that if everything goes to plan, by 2025 Veduchi will have 17 slopes, seven lifts and hotels with capacity for 4,800 guests.
Under a federal programme for the development of the Northern Caucasus Rbs6.5bn ($115m) in state funds will be poured into Veduchi between 2017 and 2020.
“Veduchi is a world class project, and I’m convinced that it will be popular not just with Russians but also foreigners,” Mr Kadyrov told assembled dignitaries and international media on Friday.
But lingering fears of terrorism and Chechyna’s appalling human rights record make such an ambition extremely challenging.
While Mr Kadyrov frequently expresses his personal loyalty to Vladimir Putin, human rights advocates and some Russian security officials complain that federal authorities often struggle to enforce Russian law in the Chechen Republic. Economists in Moscow and Grozny, the regional capital, allege that much of the federal funds, which account for up to 80 per cent of the republic’s budget, seep away because of corruption.
This month, Oyub Titiev, the local head of human rights group Memorial, was detained by the Chechen authorities who claimed they had found a haul of marijuana in his car – charges that activists and lawyers believe are fabricated. Not long after, Memorial’s office in neighbouring Ingushetia, close to the Chechen border, was torched.
Mr Titiev’s predecessor was murdered in 2009 after being abducted from her home in Grozny. Accusations of systematic torture and murder of gays in Chechnya have further blackened its human rights record.
At the opening ceremony in Veduchi on Friday Chechen officials angrily hit back at criticism. While Mr Kadyrov watched a performance of traditional Chechen dancers as he lazed on a white sofa under gas-fuelled patio heaters in the snow, his information minister Dzhambulat Umarov said the government was not trying to harass Memorial. “Why would we expose ourselves to inconvenient questions by planting drugs in his car?” he said. He added that it would have been easier for the authorities to put pressure on Mr Titiev by intimidating his family.
According to Oleg Safonov, head of Russia’s federal tourism agency,130,000 tourists visited Chechnya last year, up from about 90,000 in 2016. Tourist revenues grew to Rbs300m in 2017, tiny compared with the Rbs161bn figure for Russia as a whole but a huge increase from before 2013 when the figure was practically zero.
Elina Bataeva, head of Chechnya’s state-owned tourist company, said the republic hoped to raise the number of foreign tourists visiting the region through deals with travel companies in Iran, Saudi-Arabia and China. In 2016 there were only 2,500 overnight stays by foreigners in Chechen hotels.
Among Russians, the deep-rooted sense of fear towards Chechnya is showing signs of easing.
“Why would I not come here? Chechnya is just another part of Russia!” said Maxim Kruglov, the Russian skateboard champion who has recently taken up snowboarding and tested Veduchi’s first slope on Friday as one of the celebrity guests. “It’s different from the Alps, rockier, and less vegetation, but the views are incredible, believe me,” he said jokingly, pointing into the thick fog. “It can be just as good as Austria!”
But on Friday, only one lift, one medium-level slope and a basic service centre with toilets and ski rental were open. A massive hotel complex, restaurants and the remaining lifts have yet to be built. The road from the nearest village up to the resort, which should have been finished long ago, remains a dirt track. Other than the off-road vehicles carrying Mr Kadyrov and his entourage, cars lurched across a mixture of gravel and ice occasionally forcing passengers to get out and walk.
The project has been dogged by delays and cost overruns. According to federal government accounts, the special economic zone which Veduchi belongs to is the least efficient in the whole of Russia – although Rbs1bn of budget funds have been poured into the zone, other investors had spent only Rbs63m as of last July, just 11 per cent of the planned total.
NCR’s road map calls for Rbs18.7bn to be spent until 2019, Rbs7.33bn between 2020 and 2024, and another Rbs12bn after 2025.
Ski lift maker Poma is betting on such hopes. The French company supplied the lift that opened on Friday, and is hoping for contracts to build more. Jean-Paul Huard, vice-chairman of the executive board and operations director who attended Friday’s ceremony, dismissed questions about human rights violations. “In our history, things were not always so pretty either,” he said. “In the French revolution, they cut off people’s heads.”