Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Grozny's Unwanted Facelift

Despite lack of government money to rebuild Chechen capital, there’s a frenzy of private construction work – and officials say cowboy builders are flouting all the regulations.
By Asya Ramazanova

A jumble of buildings built to apparently random designs has sprung up like mushrooms all over Grozny, a city that once had the uniform high-rise buildings typical of every major Russian town.


Since large-scale military operations subsided in Chechnya, private finance has stepped in to fill the gap left by the shortage of government money for reconstruction. As a result, numerous cafes, hairdressers, garages, petrol stations, shops and snack bars have appeared, many of them clustered in the city centre.


On Victory Avenue, the main thoroughfare, one structure appears to be made entirely out of metal pipes, but in any case it is all but invisible under a multitude of advertising posters.


The construction boom has meant that builders have seized any available space, paying little heed to architectural or other planning considerations.


Further along Victory Avenue, the National Museum is still derelict, but right beside it a brand-new, two-storey building has appeared, once again plastered all over with advertisements. The site lay empty until last year, after the Tsarist-era residential property that occupied it was bombed to rubble in 2000.


One of the many new petrol stations in the city centre is located just 20 metres from a hospital, while the Sabita shopping centre is right next door to the Khanpasha Nuradilov Theatre.


Some residents say that however unsightly the privately-funded buildings are, they are better than nothing.


“They might be an eyesore, but if these private developers did not exist with their grandiose building schemes, then our city would still be an empty ruin,” student Laisat Isaeva told IWPR.


The Chechen authorities have little scope to commission new buildings due to a chronic lack of funds, although some large-scale projects are being financed through a Russian national programme.


There is a huge amount to be done: out of the 49,600 buildings that existed in Grozny prior to the two Chechen conflicts, 17,400 have been destroyed. And according to Malika Mamedova, head of the construction department of Grozny city administration, “In the past five years we have put up only 53 buildings. Rebuilding the city so that it looks like it did in 1994 would cost 20 billion roubles [700 million US dollars] over a five-year period.”


Mamedova said the main problem was a shortfall in funding, “Since the end of the second Chechen war, we have been allocated just 1.7 billion roubles for reconstruction of the city, although our own calculations show that we were we were due 4.4 billion from the [Russian] federal budget.”


She believes there is a great and unfair discrepancy between the state funding given to Grozny and the larger sums she says have been awarded to the capitals of other republics in the North Caucasus.


“You can draw your own conclusions,” she added.


Russia’s State Construction Department has allocated 1.9 billion roubles for work in Chechnya this year. But this office does not concern itself with whether new buildings are in keeping with Grozny’s architecture – that is the job of the State Architecture Building Inspectorate, which has existed since May 2004.


The head of the architecture inspectorate, Ruslan Velidov, explained that 24 multi-storey buildings were completed last year, but an inspection showed that 22 of them were in serious breach of regulations. In particular, engineering to lay on hot and cold water, electricity, gas and sewage had been botched.


“They’re just empty shells – low quality and unfinished,” said Velidov.


He says that in future, the state’s architectural inspectors plan to check out all newly-completed buildings before they come into use so as to avoid a repetition of this situation.


One resident of Grozny who had personal experience in living in such a shoddily-finished building told IWPR, “I don’t know what our bureaucrats are thinking. We have to think not only about today but also about tomorrow. I lived in one of these buildings but now that the weather has turned cold I have to stay with relatives. To be perfectly honest, I am fed up with it all.”


Balaudi Magamadov, a well-known architect who heads Archstroi, a firm which has designed about 100 of Grozny’s new buildings, blames the lack of government oversight.


“The state’s monitoring system does not keep an eye on construction in the city to ensure that it is in line with planning decisions,” he said. “You can see all around you how unschooled and irresponsible the builders are, and how completely they disregard planning decisions. ”


Magomadov’s firm is currently drafting plans to rebuild Grozny’s television and radio station, and the negotiations have thrown up some familiar concerns.


The broadcasters want a new building on the temporary site they are currently using, but Magomadov disapproves, saying, “First, this is a residential area. Second, the site does not meet regulations. Furthermore, it is not possible to have functional spaces which meet safety, security and maintenance criteria.


“These are serious considerations which need to be taken into account.”


Chechnya’s State Committee for Architecture and Urban Planning says its main aims are to preserve the historical look, cultural heritage and green spaces of Grozny, and to create a safe, ecologically sound, socially cohesive and pleasant environment.


Some residents are less concerned about the finer points of town planning than finding a decent place to live.


Rasim Bakuev, a student, said, “People have nowhere to live. It’s essential to build new housing so that people who have been living in overcrowded temporary refuges with absolutely no facilities can at last enjoy some domestic peace and comfort.”


Grozny’s chief architect, Supyan Kavrnukaev, told IWPR that the new-look city will have modern, European-style architecture, with building height averaging 12 storeys. He said the authorities have invited construction firms from Russian cities such as Rostov and Irkutsk to help with the design work, although their main partner is a Moscow planning institute.


Kavrnukaev is highly critical of the cavalier practices of the private-sector construction industry.


“Unfortunately, with few exceptions, most of the building work is taking place independently, in breach of regulations, and without the approval of the authorities,” he said. “This constitutes a breach of the civil code. So we will be merciless about knocking these buildings down, with the assistance of the Chechen interior ministry, of course.”


But such threats may not spell the end for the cowboy builders just yet. The State Architecture Building Inspectorate says it is powerless to act when it comes to land handed out by the Grozny mayor’s office. Until the laws that give local government virtually a free hand on such matters are changed, the unregulated construction boom will continue unchecked.


Asya Ramazanova is the pseudonym of a journalist working in Grozny.