Chechnya: Ticket to Grozny

The Chechen capital’s airport is set to reopen for civilian flights next year.

Chechnya: Ticket to Grozny

The Chechen capital’s airport is set to reopen for civilian flights next year.

Thursday, 10 November, 2005

Decayed and dilapidated, Grozny airport at first glance looks little more than a wreck. Lined with barbed wire and overgrown fields, the road to the terminal ends at ruined buildings where the letters spelling out GROZNY are barely visible.

Two devastating wars have taken their toll on the airport, but now the rebuilding has finally begun, and although much of the infrastructure still looks untouched, the first civilian flights are planned for early next year.

Russia’s transport ministry has allocated 346 million roubles for the work and resurfacing work on the runways is already in progress.

At the moment, air passengers from Chechnya have to travel to neighbouring Ingushetia, where there is an airport near the capital Nazran, for the daily flight to Moscow. The impending reopening is good news for passengers, as flights to the Russian capital from Nazran cost 4,100 roubles (about 145 US dollars), compared with an expected ticket price of 2,800 roubles once Grozny is up and running again.

Rebuilding was supposed to have begun in 2000, but a raft of problems, both financial and operational, has delayed the start until now.

Chechnya’s republican leadership has made repeated requests for the airport to reopen to Vaynakhavia, a subsidiary of the Russian Federal Air Transport Agency which is in charge of the works.

Though the planned opening, after years of false starts, is seen as a positive symbol of stability in the region, many problems remain.

Adam Malsagov, deputy director of Vaynakhavia ground services in Grozny, told IWPR that the 346 million roubles allocated were insufficient, saying 1.3 billion roubles – some 45 million dollars - would be needed to complete the work. He blames Moscow for failing to provide proper technical plans and match these with realistic cost estimates.

"The sum [allocated for the whole period] is not enough to complete even the first phase of the building operations," he said. The second phase of reconstruction is supposed to include the building of a new airport hotel.

Also of concern is that Chechnya has no planes of its own, nor an airline. No money for either has been allocated from the Russian budget and while top republican figures have been lobbying for funds, so far they have had little success.

"Our officials are demanding four planes from the Russian government – two TU-154s and two YAK-42s - to replace the seven aircraft destroyed during anti-terrorist operations in Chechnya," said Malsagov.

The airport has had a turbulent recent history. Under Chechnya’s first post-Soviet president, Jokhar Dudaev, Grozny airport was used – without Moscow's sanction - for flights abroad to Turkey, Iran, the United Arab Emirates and Lithuania. During that period, Dudaev renamed the airport Sheikh Mansur, after the Chechen leader who led the first open rebellion against the Russians in the late 18th century.

The airport was one of the first buildings to be destroyed during the first conflict of 1994-96.

Zulai Aldamova lived in a small settlement of 15 houses located two kilometres from the airport and had a good view of the devastation. "There were Chechen gunmen there during the first war,” said Aldamova. “They defended the airport. Later, Russian soldiers positioned themselves right on the ridge there and started bombing, but their shells didn’t hit the airport - they hit the city. The gunmen had to abandon the airport in order so as to hold on to the capital."

In the period between the first and second wars, the then Chechen president, Aslan Maskhadov, reached agreement with Moscow that the airport would operate international flights from autumn 1997. But Maskhadov decided to close the airport in March 1998 when the two sides failed to sort out customs and border control issues.

Then, before any new agreement could be reached, another war began.

With the fall of Grozny in January 2000, the airport was used by the Russian military and was renamed Severny [North] by the army.

When it reopens, the airport will revert to its old name of Grozny, but will still house a dozen military barracks for units providing security.

The first passenger flights will go from Grozny to Moscow, with a flight to the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don expected some time next year.

In the meantime, test flights will begin later this year to ensure air traffic control systems and navigation equipment are working properly. Signalling, radio systems and meteorological systems also have to be refurbished and upgraded.

Asya Ramazanova is a reporter for Chechenskoye Obshchestvo newspaper in Grozny.

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