Battered and bleeding: Chechnya looks beyond ruins of a fallen empire

Given that he had had every reason to believe that he would die on the battlefields of Chechnya, Sergei was understandably relieved to be going home. But he was also indignant.

"This place is an entirely different country," he said, standing beside his tank on the outskirts of Grozny. "I don't know what the war's objective was. It was simply misguided and wrong."

The 21-year-old Russian, along with thousands of other young men, was preparing to leave following the Kremlin's decision to withdraw from Chechnya before next month's elections here. They are packing their bags knowing they leave behind a bloodbath in a country that their army failed to tame, despite the loss of at least 4,000 Russian servicemen.

It was a terrible war, even by the ghastly standards of the 20th century. Yesterday was the second anniversary of the day President Boris Yeltsin sent his troops in for what he believed would be a swift victory which would rejuvenate his popularity and crush the Chechen leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, who had proclaimed Chechnya an independent state in 1991.

To his horror, the Chechens mounted a furious resistance and maintained it, even after the Russians systematically bombed their villages, and carried on despite Mr Yeltsin's assurances to a scandalously indifferent West that military operations were over.

"From the beginning, the war was characterised by massive, appalling violations of humanitarian law," said Human Rights Watch Helsinki in a report which warns that many problems have yet to be settled in the aftermath of hostilities. But although the carnage was appalling - estimates of the death toll varies wildly from 20,000 to 100,000 - the Chechens can claim some measure of success. The Russian army has been humiliated by a small force of rebels and is leaving, without disarming them.

The shadow of Moscow will still loom over the North Caucasus, but Chechnya is now in the hands of a government of separatists, and will remain so after the elections, scheduled for 27 January - two days after the Russians say their last soldier will have left.

The war did not settle the most important issue of all: the republic's legal status. Under the August peace agreement, both sides agreed to postpone a decision until 2001. They are maintaining what diplomats call "constructive ambiguity" over the issue.

There is, however, nothing ambiguous about their positions. Moscow insists that Chechnya is part of the Russian Federation. The Chechens believe that they are an independent nation.

"Of course we are not going to deny that we are an independent republic," said Brigadier General Kasbek Makhashev, the Chechen Minister of the Interior. "Independence either exists or it doesn't. But we do understand that our relations [with Moscow] must be established on mutually beneficial principles."

While the republic's status is unresolved, the place remains in limbo. Few foreigners will want to invest without knowing whether it is a country or not. Yet it is in ruins, in desperate need of money to rebuild the wrecked schools, universities, hospitals, institutes, roads, and talented people to run them.

Inevitably, all eyes turn to Russia. Optimistic-sounding discussions have taken place between Moscow and Grozny about investment. But Russia is in financial chaos, unable to pay its coal miners and pensioners, let alone its old enemies in the Caucasus.

Hope has fixed on a Russian-Chechen agreement over oil. One of two pipelines which will carry oil from the Caspian Sea runs from Baku to the Black Sea via Chechnya. Russia's desire to control the pipeline was another reason why it started the war. A tariff-sharing deal may yield valuable income for the Chechens.

Yet it is hard to believe that this could ever supply the billions of dollars needed to rebuild their home. There are other flickers of hope: Chechnya has ties with Saudi Arabia and other Muslim nations, which may agree to chip in funds, especially if it means deepening its Islamic roots.

But it is all as cloudy as the winter fog over the Caucasus mountains. Even the most optimistic economists would find it hard to believe that enough money will flow in to Chechnya to secure its destiny as a modern society, and not just a Third World bazaar, surrounded by the ruins of a fallen empire.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
footballLive! Chelsea vs West Ham kicked off 10 Boxing Day matches, with Arsenal vs QPR closing the action
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all