From bloodshed to bling - a new beginning for Russia's Caucasus

Russia's Caucasus, long synonymous with violence, is struggling to overturn the stereotype. With football and glamorous celebrity parties gilding the region’s tarnished image, it seems the Caucasus’ PR machine is achieving its goals.

­Extravaganzas of glamour and bling are fast becoming the modern face of the Caucasus, where ancient traditions struggle to hold their own in the razzmatazz of 21st-century life.

And for many, it started here in Dagestan – with the beautiful game.

Not long ago, local football club Anzhi Makhachkala was barely known outside the region. Now, it regularly makes international headlines with its dabbles on the global transfer market.

“I am starting from scratch. I’ve won all the trophies possible in Europe as a player, and here I can start anew. Plus, I’ve played with Roberto Carlos before and he told me a lot about Russian football. And I do look forward to joining the team,” said Samuel Eto'o, Anzhi’s world-famous striker.

The words of the Cameroonian star and, more importantly, the record price the Dagestani club were prepared to pay, made the local team one of the most ambitious clubs in the world.

And ambition is almost everything in the Caucasus.

“Discover the land of opportunities… five world class Alpine ski resorts… the new era of the Northern Caucasus is coming,” proclaims a recent TV commercial.

There are actually more than a dozen ski resorts here, but all currently stand empty. And the state is now aiming to turn that around.

France has already signed up to the project. But with one important condition – that Russia guarantees the repayment of funds if the security situation worsens, or there is a major incident.

The first brand-new hotels are due to be ready for the upcoming ski season, so there is not much time left to boost people`s confidence in the safety of a holiday in the Caucasus – a task which is sure to be far harder than building  five-star accommodation.

Indeed terrorism, anti-terror raids and armed attacks are often the first things that come to mind when you think of life in the Caucasus, as that is mostly what we hear in the news.

But real life is, as always, much more complicated.  There is another side to living down here that is barely even heard of beyond the region, but which is well worth making the effort to discover.

“I never thought it would be possible in such a short amount of time. What’s happened to our city, to the Chechen capital, is some kind of miracle. I can’t believe my eyes,” says local resident Magomed Magomedov.

And it is not just soaring skyscrapers and business centers that are popping up here. Celebrities have also been flooding in.

When Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov threw a lavish party last month to mark his 35th birthday, stars such as actor Jean-Claude Van Damme, violinist Vanessa Mae, singer Seal and actress Hillary Swank flocked to Grozny for the celebrations.  

And while Swank, who was criticized for tacitly condoning human rights abuses in Chechnya, may have been forced to explain her visit, the fallout has only helped put the region on the front pages.

The North Caucasus PR machine continues to spin at full speed, because where the stars go, the cameras follow.