Cellphone sales on the rise in Chechnya

An elegant young Chechen, her head bared in defiance of tradition and her feet cosseted in fine shoes, never falters in her animated cellphone conversation even when a Russian armoured car passes her on a Grozny street lined with gutted houses.

In the half-ruined Chechen capital, a vast majority of inhabitants still consider running water and standard telephone lines a luxury, and few can afford a cellphone.

However, cellphone sales are on a steady rise.

Grozny’s street vendors and kiosks had been sporting the logo of Russia’s Megafon, Chechnya’s sole mobile operator, since the republic’s mobile network was launched last summer in a bid to prove the war-torn region was on its way to “normalisation.”

“This is the latest fashion. But it is still too early to say if one could really freely use them,” said Ruslan, a biology professor who joined Chechnya’s 62 000 cellphone users six months ago.

“We have been an off-limits zone for a long time, and that left its traces,” he said, in a reference to habitual insecurity of this North Caucasus republic that had, since 1999, been subject to an “anti-terrorist campaign”.

It was at the beginning of that second war that Grozny was bombed down to ruins, and the majority of telephone relays had been destroyed.

That signaled years of isolation for the civilian population, while authorities feared that the network, which then passed into military hands, could be used by rebel groups.

Today, cellphone are accessible to all, without a prior registration with the FSB security service—unlike in 2003, when the first civilian users, primarily members of the pro-Russian administration, had to apply for authorisation.

As for whether the network is tapped, the spokesperson for Mobikom-Kavkaz—Megafon’s operator in the region—would not comment.

“This is secret information,” Yury Grechko said.

Locals in their turn avoid mentioning names or the rendezvous locations in their cellphone conversations—just in case.

Ruslan too confessed he did not feel himself completely free of the shadow—his SIM card does not work anywhere but Chechnya.

That is because allowing Chechen telephones to operate in the whole of Russia is subject to “authorisation by the secret services,” said Grechko of Mobikom-Kavkaz, whose office is lodged in Russia’s southern city of Krasnodar.

Chechen cellphones would not work even in the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia, while those bought in other regions do not function in Chechnya.

“They pretend we are like the other Russian regions, but we cannot use our phones anywhere but here! We are still the exception,” said Fatima, who frequently travels between Chechnya and Ingushetia, where she lives. - Sapa-AFP

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