MOSCOW, Feb. 3, 2010 -- Which is the odd one out: Chamonix, Zermatt or Chechnya?
The answer is none, if you ask Ramzan Kadyrov, president of Russia's volatile southern republic of Chechnya. The region is better known for its terrorism than T-bars, but that's what Kadyrov is hoping to change.
The iron-fisted ruler insists that his little republic -- which has seen two bloody wars and continues to battle a violent homegrown Islamist insurgency -- is the ideal ski destination.
"These areas are perfectly suitable for setting up a tourist resort," Kadyrov said in a recent interview with a Russian Web site. "The climate is wonderful, there's beautiful nature. If the infrastructure were established, then we wouldn't be worse than any of the resorts in France or Switzerland."
The area is indeed picturesque, but Nikolai Petrov, an expert on the North Caucasus region at Moscow's Carnegie Center, laughs when asked if he would go skiing in Chechnya.
"I'm afraid that in the foreseeable future there is nothing which can be done by the Chechen government to attract skiers, tourists from the rest of the country or even the rest of the world," he told ABC News.
"It doesn't mean they can't invest huge money, it doesn't mean they can't spend some money for the purposes of constructing something which can attract [the likes of Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin or [President Dmitry] Medvedev."
Petrov said there would be no better way to rehab Chechnya image and praised Kadyrov's entrepreneurial spirit, a rare compliment for a man more often accused of running a dictatorship that uses brutal tactics to quash separatists. Human rights groups accuse Kadyrov of ordering kidnappings and torture to attempt to beat his opponents into submission, and a spate of violence in the past year shows that Chechnya and its neighbors are a long way from being declared stable.
Nevertheless, Kadyrov has declared his intent to develop Chechnya's tourism industry and claims to have lined up financial support for his ski project.
One major donor, according Carnegie's Petrov, could be Putin, who has made the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in neighboring Sochi a personal project and would like to see Chechnya's name synonymous with something other than violence.
"The best source of income is to participate in sharing the budget for the 2014 Olympics," said Petrov. "I'm sure that due to Mr. Putin's support [Kadyrov] can pretend to get money to invest in his tourist complex, though I don't think he has any business prospects..."
Violence Stands in the Way
Kadyrov has singled out the republic's Argun Gorge as the prime location for the ski resort, once a stronghold for militant fighters.
"First he drove a Jeep, then an ATV, and then he went on foot. Finally, he reached the border with Georgia and was amazed by the beauty of the area," Kadyrov's press secretary told a Russian newspaper.
An obstacle to Kadyrov's plan might be be Doka Umarov, the self-proclaimed "Emir of the Caucasus" whose goal is to unite Russia's Muslim republics under an independent flag and Sharia law. Umarov claimed responsibility for the November bombing of a passenger train between Moscow and St. Petersburg, and last week Kadyrov announced a plan to track down "that rat," a reference to Umarov, who is believed to be hiding in the among the republic's peaks.
Also last week, Medvedev essentially acknowledged the growing problem in the region by redistricting -- placing the seven most volatile republics under the control of a new deputy prime minister known for encouraging economic growth.
"In these areas there are ancient monuments of architecture which would be of great interest to visitors to our republic," says Kadyrov, seemingly test-driving a future ad campaign.
"Soon we will begin to build these resorts and all the necessary conditions to for the development of tourism in the Chechen republic will be established."