Hollywood stars help Chechnya leader to celebrate his birthday

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Chechnya's Kremlin-backed leader marked his 35th birthday yesterday with a lavish celebration in central Grozny featuring Hollywood stars and the opening of a skyscraper complex.

The celebration came amid concerns from activists that the territory under the rule of Ramzan Kadyrov remains rife with rights abuses. Mr Kadyrov had said he would fire any officials who tried to give him birthday presents as he did not want a big celebration, but two years ago the City Day of Grozny was conveniently moved to Mr Kadyrov's birthday, and yesterday evening's festivities were ostensibly to celebrate the city.

Central Grozny was closed off for the night, which also saw the opening of Grozny City, a collection of Dubai-style skyscrapers in the Chechen capital, where just a decade ago barely a building was standing. Mr Kadyrov shouted "Allahu Akbar" three times as the buildings were illuminated with hundreds of fireworks simultaneously detonating around their walls.

Mr Kadyrov took over as effective ruler of the republic when his father, Akhmad-Khadzhi Kadyrov, was killed in a bomb attack in May 2005. Since then, he has gradually a built up a three-pronged personality cult around himself, his father and Vladimir Putin, the man who won popularity in Russia by ordering an all-out attack on Chechnya. The main street of Grozny is now called Putin Avenue, and pictures of Kadyrov Snr, Jnr, and Mr Putin adorn almost every building in the capital.

After the opening of Grozny City, Jean-Claude van Damme was welcomed to the stage, where paid tribute to Mr Kadyrov. Although he referred repeatedly to "the country of Chechena" (sic), he recovered at the end of his speech to yell, "I love you Mr Kadyrov!" The assembled dignitaries applauded.

Actress Hilary Swank, next on stage said she had been on a tour of the town. "I could feel the spirit of the people, and I could see that everyone was so happy," she said. "Happy birthday Mr President." Later, the violinist Vanessa Mae, who was paid a reported $500,000 (£324,000) to attend, performed.

There has been increasing concern among Russians about the enormous sums of cash that are splashed on lavish events in Chechnya. Earlier this year Mr Kadyrov invited footballers such as Diego Maradona, Luis Figo and Robbie Fowler to play against him in a football match in Grozny.

Mr Kadyrov strolled into Grozny's central mosque to speak with journalists before the concert yesterday and praised the development of Chechnya over the past few years. Asked where the money for all the spending in Chechnya comes from, Mr Kadyrov laughed. "Allah gives it to us. We don't know ourselves where it comes from."

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