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 comes 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..." word quickly spreads 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 here 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 Vladimirovitch 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 it's new-found 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 2009, 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 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 drank from. To greet the Rolls 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 9pm to 10pm, religion students participate in the "lalimun," a game show where they must identify the origins of the different Suras chosen by a jury of wise men.

Eyes are everywhere

Grozny could be described as Arabian Nights meets George Orwell's 1984. Over the four minarets, a 24-hour camera rides on rails suspended between the avenue and the gardens. The big round lens is like Kadyrov's eye. The Chechen leader keeps a close watch and makes all decisions: reconstruction, the latest models of luxury cars, the Dhikr (a Sufi prayer ritual) and what women wear. In Chechnya, girls have to wear the headscarf starting at age 7. In neighboring Ingushetia, it's the opposite. The veil is forbidden in grade school.

Just like in Russia, this vertical power is protected by extortion and corruption. To get a job, one must pay. Leyla (names have been changed to protect those interviewed), a doctor, got a job at the hospital after paying 300,000 rubles (about 7,000 euros) to her employer. A few months later, she was told that she was no longer fit for the job, that she was unskilled, badly dressed and would probably be fired. She believes someone else was ready to pay even more to get her job. Had she stayed, she would have had to earn back the 300,000 rubles she paid, at the expense of the patients.

Fatima, a teacher, says all employees and students must make regular payments of a few hundred euros to the Akhmad Kadyrov Fund. No one knows how it's managed but everyone, from businessmen to maids, must contribute. Not an easy task in a country plagued by unemployment (59.6% according to the Russian Federation's Regions' Ministry.) Finding a job is a hard task when there are no factories and no investments, just football fields, empty luxury hotels and half-built shopping malls and mosques.

"My family only thinks about one thing, getting close to Ramzan's motorcade when he throws 5,000-ruble-bills (about 116 euros). It's humiliating. I can't take this feudalism and this movie set scenery anymore," says Rizvan pointing to his flat screen TV showing Kadyrov's 35th birthday ceremonies complete with a concert, acrobats and laser shows.

Money is not an issue for Timur. He has contacts, works for the state and is developing a small business. "I only think about money. I want my children to go to the best schools, to have the best clothes," he says as he drives his Japanese SUV. But despite his financial situation and his contacts, he is afraid. "There is no such thing as business here, just extortion. Tomorrow, they can come and take everything I have, lock me up and no one would be able to save me."

Though it's impossible to film and hard to measure, fear can be felt everywhere. Every person interviewed started off with the same warning: "If you quote me by name, I'm dead.." To keep this fear alive, there's nothing like the gory videos that Chechens share on their cell phones. Kadyrov allows his thugs to leak footage of their violent punishments. Young Chechens are very fond of this sort of snuff movie showing torture, agonies, cadaver desecration and other barbaric acts.

Not many people make it out of Kadyrov's secret jails alive. Umar Israilov, who fled to Vienna, willingly told of his experience in Kadyrov's custody, how Kadyrov would come by and torture prisoners suspected of supporting the Islamist rebellion spreading across the Caucasus. He tried to press charges in front of the European Court of Human Rights, but ran out of time: He was shot dead in Vienna in January 2009. According to the Austrian police, his murderers, Kadyrov's men, disappeared. Lechi Bogatyrov, the suspected gunman wanted by the Austrian authorities, is now the head of a department of the Chechen Interior ministry. Russia has not responded to requests for cooperation on the case.

Read the original article in French

Photo - gorod grozny