The online presence and antics of the head of the Chechen Republic in Russia, Ramzan Kadyrov, make regular headlines in Russian media. He has a hyperactive Instagram account where he posts heroic images of his daily labors, poses with guns or comments on the world at large. Kadyrov’s social media activity in many ways reflects his larger-than-life political persona.
An article written by Yelena Milashina, published in Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian newspaper and website known for its investigative reporting, describes the darker side of Kadyrov’s Internet exploits. Increasingly, Kadyrov’s entourage is using the openly available critical comments posted by Russian netizens to police how Kadyrov is talked about on social media, sometimes resorting to face-to-face intimidation. With permission, RuNet Echo translates the report here.
The Chechen ideologists have invented a non-lethal, but highly effective way of influencing their critics. The method has been successfully tested in Chechnya—and is now being actively used outside of the republic.
Right before New Year the news website Gazeta.ru published a tiny piece titled “Kadyrov demands phone number of Instagram user who insulted him.” Hardly anyone noticed the piece, but the story had a serious development.
The gist of the story is this: in the comments under a post on the Kavkaz_pravda Instagram account devoted to (opposition politician) Ilya Yashin’s address to the head of Chechnya, user @kadyrov_95 (Kadyrov’s official profile) wrote “He’s a funny guy))).” In reply, user @kur_maga wrote: “@kadyrov_95, to be honest, it’s you who looks funny when you say that you’ve done nothing to show off.”
When no reaction followed, the user wrote again: “You’re the one who looks funny when you say Putin is your best friend, @kadyrov_95.”
After this, @kadyrov_95 asked: “@kur_maga, give me your (phone) number, friend)).”
“Let’s see what you’re made of”
History soon repeated itself. Commenting on one of the posts about human rights advocate Igor Kalyapin on the same Chechen platform (kavkaz_pravda), user @jelezodorojnik replied to a Chechen journalist with the username @ryzana_v: “I’m from Nalchik. I don’t give a f*ck about people like you. I don’t know Kalyapin. I know he came to you to protect your asses which are being tortured in prisons. You protect the authorities, not the people. You’re just a political shill, nothing more…”
Another user, @lord_095, reacted to this comment: “@jelezodorojnik I’ll find you, scum, by the license plate of your Moskvitch you got from your granddad! We’ll see what you’re made of then, I promise!”
That same day @lord_095 wrote: “@jelezodorojnik N**, city of Nalchik. Phone 89289159***2.” And added: “What do you say now?”
One day later the user @ryzana_v published a comment in the same thread, which obviously suggests that N** was visited by someone who filmed another “shaming video.” @ryzana_v threatened to publish this video on social media. After this, user @jelezodorojnik deleted his Instagram account.
Here’s what’s curious. Screenshots of threats from @kadyrov_95 and @lord_095 are openly accessible and visible. It’s not that they’re not being deleted—they’re being reposted by Chechen pro-government accounts, which the Chechen press ministry has been opening en mass.
Guests with a video camera
One of such Instagram accounts, krik_chechni, has an openly accessible screenshot of the initial reaction of Ramzan Kadyrov and local official Buvaysar Saytyev to the statement by Russian lawmaker Konstantin Senchenko. @kadyrov_95 writes: “)))I think the guy has had too much to drink))))”
The user @saitiev_95 immediately replies: “I KNOW THIS CLOWN.” And everyone now knows what happened next.
Buvaysar Saytyev paid the “clown” a visit, and the next day Chechen television aired a report with the recording of a phone conversation between Konstantin Senchenko with head of the online edition of “Grozny Inform” Dmitry Yefremov. This is a telling conversation that points to the level of intimidation and pressure that Senchenko was subjected to. In his conversation with Yefremov, Senchenko behaves as completely powerless and acknowledges (actually, repeats after Yefremov) that Chechen separatists (that the Kadyrovs sided with until 2002) and Russian federal forces “fought for a joint, united Russia.” Such behavior could only come from someone who has been scared to death.
All these stories, it seems, haven’t really been fully processed. From all appearances, the Chechen authorities seem to have found a way to influence their critics that, while not lethal, is highly effective. They test drove it in Chechnya and then started using it outside of the republic. And here’s what’s fascinating: both the resident of Nalchik, and the resident of Krasnoyarsk react to it in the same way Chechens do. They keep silent. And the Russian president’s press-secretary asks “not to blow the situation out of proportion…”
As of late, the self-censorship in Chechen Facebook accounts has turned into a epidemic. Users have been deleting or thoroughly cleansing their profile pages. “Dangerous” posts are being deleted, personal information and friends lists are being hidden for safety reasons. Citizens of Chechnya are also mass-migrating from WhatsApp to Telegram messenger (which offers a higher degree of security), use the Secret Chats feature to send information and then immediately destroy it.
But the rest of Russian citizens aren’t yet used to such cautious behavior. They haven’t yet realized that Russian Internet users with nicknames @kadyrov_95 and @lord_095 can send guests with a video camera to any address in Russia.
Kadyrov—the new effective manager
The active phase of conquering the Russian Internet began in the summer of 2014, when the Chechen press ministry got a new head, Dzhambulat Umarov. Head of Chechen presidential administration Magomet Daudov had Umarov in his sights for a while and was intrigued by his ambitious ideological project, called “The KRA Factor” (with KRA standing for Kadyrov Ramzan Akhmetovich).
Another up-and-coming local ideologue, Dmitry Yefremov (A Russian who moved to Grozny from Moscow and rose in the ranks on local TV), described the project thusly: “The KRA Factor is the first systematic attempt to describe the processes that have been occurring in the Republic during the last decade […] (Ramzan Kadyrov), serving as the axis and foundation for the federal authorities, and at once the embodiment of the principles of federalism, exists as a guarantor of multiethnic and multiconfessional peace. In Chechnya? No, I think, much broader[…] The KRA Factor is an ideologeme for a new Russia, currently in the process of […] searching for its own identity.”
The programmatic statement of the project on the www.factorkra.ru website calls Ramzan Kadyrov:
– “the most creative and effective factor for strengthening the state system of the Russian Federation”;
– “the only efficient way of fighting international terrorism in global practice”;
– “the only hope of the Chechen people”;
– “a faithful associate of the President and Commander in Chief of Russia, who, in these difficult days, […] proves his constant readiness to perform the assigned tasks in any part of the global geopolitical space, should such an order be given.”
Kadyrov’s enemies are described as “those who brainwash the population […] of sovereign nations with political, socio-economic or other problems, through velvet or Maidan-like “revolutions,” wipe them from the face of the Earth.” The statement also mentions terrorists of all kinds who “being the instruments of the external political course of the USA and their allies, perform terrorist acts in any place on Earth where they are ordered to…”
In conclusion, Dzhambulat Umarov draws a parallel between Kadyrov, Saddam Hussain and Muammar Gaddafi—“brotherly rulers” who courageously fought “the Western-Atlantic world of the many-faced Iblis.” And the Chechen press minister doesn’t seem to be bothered by the fact that both of the “brothers” mentioned didn’t end so well.
Lately, a lot is being said daily on Chechen television about Kadyrov’s great mission and his role in the context of the country and the world, most of it styled after “The KRA Factor.” Actually, most of Kadyrov’s latest most publicized statements seem to have come out of the same design—including his remark about the “faithful foot soldier” and his speech about the “enemies of the people.” These same orientations are being broadcast online on the many various Chechen propaganda platforms on social media, whose number has been growing constantly during the past year. Ramzan (Kadyrov) himself, as evident from the examples above, is an active follower of these accounts.
It should be noted that Chechen media (for the most part, television) have always differed in how they structure their news from the regional mainstream media in other parts of the Russian Federation. No other regional state television company has news bulletins that are 99% comprised of stories about the region’s governor. In Chechnya the only news worth reporting is the public and personal life of Ramzan Kadyrov. His governing activity, his law enforcement structures, his interventions into the religious sphere, his international political connections, his Hajj pilgrimages with his entourage, his family visits to the next Arab sheikh, his hafiz children, his entrepreneur wife, his mother’s charity work, his many hobbies: soccer, boxing, mixed martial arts, horses, dogs and other beasts. Now a new regular topic: “His enemies.”
This simplistic and crude information machine is being funded by the money that the Chechen press ministry, the local media, and bloggers receive from the Russian federal budget.
Another curious thing: Recently, at the order of the Russian president, the “Russian People’s Front” worked with the Russian government to prepare measures to cut state spending on the self-promotion and publicity for heads of the Russian regions. Starting in March 2016 the regional governors will have to report on every penny of the taxpayer funds spent on media coverage of their own activities, by completing and publishing a special form on the official website (something akin to an “information declaration”). I wonder how this innovation will reflect on the head of Chechnya?
Not an accidental call
I tried calling the phone number published by user @lord_095 in his comment.
—Hello, is this N**?
—My name is Yelena Milashina, I am a journalist from Novaya Gazeta, writing about the threats that Internet users have been getting from the Chechen authorities. I learned about your situation from the Krik Chechny Instagram account. The threats directed at you are still publicly available. Can you comment on the situation? Did you receive threats from the speaker of the Chechen parliament Magomet Daudov about your post? Did someone pay you a visit?
—They came, put me in a car and filmed me (on a video camera)… Anyway, right now they are analyzing this account which was created using my information…
—Are they analyzing it for threats that you received or analyzing it because this was an account you didn’t create? Meaning that someone else wrote the post on your behalf, which then caused someone from Chechnya to pay you a visit?
—How did you find out about this? Who are you?
—I’m a journalist from a federal newspaper. I’d like to find out if you went to law enforcement to report the threats you received and the pressure upon you?
—Can you call me back in 15 minutes?
15 minutes later, N** refused to discuss this issue further: “I refuse to provide you with comments on the matter.” When asked again if he appealed to law enforcement about the pressure exerted upon him, he also replied: “I refuse to discuss this with you.”