Ramzan Kadyrov, head of Russia’s restive Chechnya republic, doesn’t actually ski. So after he pulled a giant lever to start the chairlift at the new Veduchi resort on Friday, he rode it down to speak with the young men who had skied the resort’s only slope holding flags emblazoned with the faces of the strongman leader and his late father.
On the way back up, the chairlift briefly ground to a halt, leaving Mr Kadyrov, who enjoys near absolute power in Chechnya, dangling in the fog for several long seconds.
Nonetheless, he later promised guests including Russian Olympic athletes that a tourist hub with “ideal conditions” was being created here.
“I’m confident that it will become popular not just with the Russian population but also with foreign countries,” said Mr Kadyrov before jogging from the stage to a VIP area surrounded by bearded bodyguards.
But technical hiccups are hardly the biggest worries facing the ski resort, which is located 12 miles up the road from Shatoy, the site of a major battle with Chechen separatists in 2000.
Russian tourists may hesitate to travel to these mountains along their country’s southern border following an increase in insurgent attacks last year, when dozens were killed in Chechnya, according to the news outlet Caucasian Knot.
And foreign tourists are more likely to associate the troubled republic with an anti-gay purge beginning last April in which dozens of men were rounded up and tortured. At least five died.
In recent weeks, Oyub Titiyev, Chechnya director for Russia’s oldest human rights organisation Memorial, was arrested on dubious marijuana charges, and the group’s office and service car in neighbouring republics were torched.
This month, the UK foreign and commonwealth office and US state department advised against travel to Chechnya due to “civil unrest and terrorism”.
Ekaterina Sokirianskaia, director of the Conflict Analysis and Prevention Centre, called the Veduchi project “hypocritical” given the Kadyrov regime’s abuses. She said Moscow should instead focus on real conflict resolution, taming extrajudicial repressions and improving social infrastructure.
“Lawlessness, humiliation and violence are hidden behind the alluring facade of skyscrapers, fountains and ski resorts,” Ms Sokirianskaia said. “Pretending that Chechens are all happy there as the result of 18 years of conflict resolution is immoral.”
For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the resort’s opening to the public later this year—the winter has been so warm that trucks had to ferry snow to Veduchi for Friday’s ceremony—is intended as a symbolic victory.
Moscow fought two bloody wars against Chechen separatists in the 1990s and 2000s and since then has been battling a stubborn Islamist insurgency across the northern Caucasus.
Dzhambulat Umarov, Chechnya’s information minister, denied the reports of last year’s mass execution and claimed Mr Titiyev’s arrest was not politically motivated.
Asked about the safety of gay tourists in Chechnya, he told the Sunday Telegraph they could come as long as they kept their sexual orientation private and didn’t “lecture anyone about LGBT society”.
“The Chechnya republic is the safest region in Russia,” declared Albert Rabuyev, director of a local school near Veduchi, adding that his brother had gotten a job at the resort.
The state company Northern Caucasus Resorts is spending £80 million in federal money to develop Veduchi.
Established by Mr Putin, an avid skier, in 2010, the company had originally planned to build half a dozen ski resorts across the Caucasus mountains on Russia’s southern border. The idea was to create a tourism industry from scratch in these impoverished regions, fighting terrorism through jobs and stability.
Northern Caucasus Resorts also wanted to establish a beach resort in the restive Dagestan region, where the Boston bombers had lived.
Eight years later, however, it has only completed one ski resort in Karachayevo-Cherkessia, although it’s also been modernising an existing resort on Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe.
Veduchi, which began as the pet project of a Chechen oligarch, for now has only one slope with a vertical drop of 650 feet and a chairlift by French company Poma, hardly the stuff of skiers’ powder-day dreams.
Instead of ribbon-cuttings, Northern Caucasus Resorts has been in the news for a scandal around its former director, Akhmed Bilalov, who became a scapegoat for widespread delays and cost overruns at the Sochi Olympics. He was fired as deputy head of the Russian Olympic Committee in 2013 after Mr Putin ridiculed him for an unfinished ski jump.
Mr Bilalov fled under criminal charges and was treated in Germany after he claimed to have been poisoned with mercury.
His successor at Northern Caucasus Resorts was found dead at age 40 in his Moscow flat in September.
Terrorism has been a concern from the beginning. A month after Russia’s prime minister told investors in Davos in 2011 it would spend $15 billion developing ski resorts in the North Caucasus, masked gunmen stopped a minibus heading to a resort near Elbrus and killed three tourists from Moscow. An explosion also sent some of the resort’s cable cars plummeting to the ground, although no one was injured.
As security forces have cracked down in recent years and an estimated 4,000 Russian Muslims left to join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), the number of people killed annually in the North Caucasus has fallen from hundreds to dozens. But 2017 saw a new flareup in violence, especially in Chechnya, where 24 people where killed in gunfights and explosions.
In March, terrorists staged a particularly audacious attack on a national guard outpost in Chechnya, attempting to sneak in under the cover of a nighttime fog. Six soldiers and six insurgents were killed.
Even if Mr Kadyrov’s forces have more or less stamped out the broader Islamist underground here, their methods have often been brutal, including house burnings and mass arrests. Independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that 27 people were summarily executed last year in a crackdown following a carjacking and attack on police officers in Grozny in December 2016, when seven militants were killed.
In September, The Telegraph met with villagers and relatives who were beaten and intimidated after they wrote an open letter protesting the five-year prison sentence for two local men accused of “harbouring intentions” to go to Syria.
“There was a 74 per cent increase in violence in Chechnya in 2017, which I think is a very bad context for any tourist attraction to be opened,” said Gregory Shvedov, editor of Caucasion Knot.
Elina Batayeva, director of the state tourism operator Visit Chechnya, admitted that attacks occasionally occurred, but claimed that security forces had tourist routes and population centres so closely guarded that not even a “mouse could get through”. She said the UK travel warning had unfairly stopped British firms from sending tourists.
“The situation is tense around the whole world, but here it’s separated from peaceful life,” she said. “In Europe, peaceful residents suffer (from terrorist attacks), here they don’t.”
Mr Umarov called the US and UK travel advisories a “political recommendation” that “doesn’t correspond to the situation here today”.
But Ms Sokirianskaia said it would be difficult to completely guarantee tourists’ safety, especially considering Veduchi’s remote location, 50 miles from the regional capital via winding asphalt and dirt roads.
“If they can attack the national guard they can also attack tourists,” she said. “But that’s not important, because many tourists are unlikely to come anyway. What’s important for the regime is to show a picture of well-being and peace.”