Chechnya's outspoken ruler Ramzan Kadyrov has publicly suggested the murder of his government's critics online.
During a government meeting about the development of small businesses on November 5, Kadyrov appeared to condone extrajudicial attacks on online critics, calling on youth organisations, law enforcement agencies, and the government to come together to name and shame such users.
This is not unusual behaviour for Kadyrov, who has ruled the restive autonomous republic of one million in Russia's North Caucasus since 2007. For several years, human rights defenders have consistently cited Chechnya as one of Russia's most repressive regions, citing widespread torture, disappearances, and complete intolerance of dissent. This makes Chechnya an extremely dangerous place for any kind of critical or investigative journalism; in 2017, the Russian journalist Elena Milashina went into hiding after receiving death threats connected with her reporting on an ongoing crackdown against LGBT people in Chechnya.
The most striking sentence in Kadyrov's speech read:
Тех, кто нарушает согласие между людьми, сплетничает, чинит раздоры. Если мы не остановим таких людей, не убьем их, не посадим, не напугаем, ничего не получится.
Those who disrupt harmony between people are spreading gossip and sowing discord. If we don't stop these people, if we don't kill them, imprison them, scare them, then nothing will be achieved.
Initially, Kadyrov appeared to stress the legality of these threats, possibly referring to a law passed this year against “disrespect” to the authorities online. The Chechen leader added that “the law, constitution, and democracy are for the well-being of the people,” but warned that “all the rest are crooks, traitors, rabble-rousers, and schizophrenics of all stripes; we must stop them.” Ominously, Kadyrov warned that “if somebody insults honour, it is impossible to leave him alone, even if the whole world burns with a blue flame and the laws of all countries are violated.”
Predicting a public outcry, Kadyrov complained that “now they'll all say: ‘Ramzan said that somebody must be killed’ yet again.” His prediction was correct: Kadyrov's words have been reported by both pro-Kremlin and independent media outlets, generating fierce criticism in the comments sections of both.
Kadyrov's speech was originally broadcast by CGTRK Grozny, a state-owned television channel close to Chechnya's regional government. It only received wider attention after the BBC's Russian service produced a video with Russian subtitles. Most of Kadyrov's address to the regional government was in Chechen, with occasional phrases in Russian. That could be deliberate; the BBC has noted that Kadyrov is much more belligerent when speaking in Chechen.
There are, after all, not many non-native Chechen speakers worldwide; this fact has led Russian government officials to claim that Kadyrov's words were mistranslated. On November 7, Kadyrov's press secretary Alvi Karimov told Interfax-News that BBC had not covered Kadyrov's words objectively and that “their translator knows Chechen as well as I know Tahitian.” But other responses suggest that the translation was accurate; the same day, Chechnya's ombudswoman for human rights Kheda Saratova remarked that while she could not support such words as a human rights defender, she sympathised with Kadyrov, who was fed up with being insulted online and made death threats simply for effect, in order to get his critics to be silent.
But it's possible that these words were not merely an outburst on the spur of the moment.
In April, Kadyrov met with local media representatives and demanded that they step up the fight against “ideological attacks against Chechnya and Russia,” giving speaker of parliament Magomed Daudov and Akhmed Dudayev, the recently-appointed head of CGTRK Grozny, three months to show results. This also led to a wave of social media harassment against the popular exiled blogger Tumso Abdurakhmanov, a Chechen Islamist video blogger living in exile whose Telegram channel is sharply critical of Kadyrov's government.
This has become a common response to prominent Chechen critics. As Kavkaz Realii, the North Caucasus service of RFE/RL, has reported, citing anonymous sources, the Chechen authorities have run a “troll factory” since at least 2015, whose employees register under Russian-sounding names to post support for Kadyrov online, giving the impression that his heavy handed rule has admirers across the rest of Russia. By October 2019, Dudayev declared that Kadyrov and Chechnya were victims of attempts at defamation from overseas, the battle against which would be aided by a full reorganisation of state media.
In light of these efforts, it is no surprise that Kadyrov has made similar threats in the past. A similar incident occurred in June 2019, when a lingering territorial dispute between Chechnya and the neighbouring Russian republic of Dagestan flared up again. In this tense atmosphere, Kadyrov's Instagram account (of which he is an avid user) was filled with critical and sometimes offensive comments from Dagestani users. Kadyrov was indignant, and recorded a video on June 11 in which he said that he had “brotherly respect” to Dagestanis and fellow Chechens, the security services were watching such behaviour online:
Мы все читаем. Целая группа над этим работает. У нас адаты, обычаи никто не отменял. Поэтому убить меня – это не так страшно. А если вы оскорбляете мою кровь, род и мою семью, мой народ – это для меня важнее всего. Поэтому за языком следите, за пальцами следите. А то мы поломаем пальцы, вырвем язык. Имейте в виду: мы ни один провоцирующий комментарий, видео, публикации не оставим. Где бы он ни был, какой бы он ни был… Вы меня знаете хорошо. Я люблю за свои слова отвечать. Я вас прошу по-братски, как мусульманин мусульманина – не поддавайтесь на провокации.
We're reading everything. An entire group is working on that. We have our adats [Chechen traditions]. I'm not so scared of being killed. But if you offend my blood, my people and my family, my nation — those are the most important things for me. So watch your tongue, and watch your fingers. We'll break your fingers and tear out your tongue. What I mean is: we won't leave one provocative comment, video, or publication alone. Wherever he may be, whoever he is… Well, you know me well. I love to answer for my words. I'm asking you, as a brother, as a Muslim to a Muslim: don't give in to provocations.
This was no bluster; it appears that Chechnya's authorities closely follow the mood on social media. In fact, they have an extensive history of publicly humiliating Chechens for any kind of criticism or dissent, including that expressed on social media. On February 1, a man named Musa Susayev was made to apologise online for sharing an anonymous message on WhatsApp criticising the conduct of Chechnya's gas company. On July 27, 16-year old Magomed Akhmatov had to repent live on air in a conversation with Chechnya's chief mufti Salah Mezhiyev, which was broadcast by GTRK Grozny, saying that he was “deceived by people who care nothing for me,” and “apologised before the entire Chechen people.” In September, the brothers Adam and Magomed Ismayilov were made to apologise publicly to local officials on television for leaving comments on social media speculating about the origin of the funds for a large new mosque in the city of Shali.
But across the rest of Russia, these statements are received with deep unease. At a time when charges of “extremism” have been brought against protesters such as Yegor Zhukov for much, much less, a widely shared impression across the RuNet is that Chechnya's ruler is a law unto himself. This is probably why Russia's presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov recently dismissed the idea that the Kremlin would call Kadyrov to account for his words:
Максим Курников, «Эхо Москвы»― Так получается, что за последние недели несколько тем, которые связаны так или иначе с Чечней, вы не комментируете. Просто для того, чтобы понимать, — в Чечне сейчас такая же ситуация, как во всех остальных регионах России, с соблюдением российского законодательства? Или там какие-то особенные условия сейчас?
Дмитрий Песков― Нет, в Чечне не могут быть какие-то особенные условия. Это субъект Российской Федерации со всеми вытекающими юридическими и иными последствиями с точки зрения режима применения законодательства.
Максим Курников, «Эхо Москвы»― То есть эти высказывания — как вы говорите, вы еще не ознакомились — в Кремле будут изучать? Проверять, насколько они действительно были сделаны?
Дмитрий Песков― Послушайте, мы не можем же руководствоваться сообщениями «BBC», да? Я говорю, что мы не можем воспринимать сообщение «BBC» как первоисточник, который <…> комментировать.
Максим Курников, «Эхо Москвы»― Но государственный телеканал ЧГТРК «Грозный» это тоже опубликовал. Правда, без перевода.
Дмитрий Песков― Без перевода? Нет, нам неизвестно о таких высказываниях ничего.
Максим Курников, «Эхо Москвы»― Будут ли они проверяться или нет?
Дмитрий Песков― Нет, не будут.
Maxim Kurnikov, Ekho Moskvy: So it happens that in recent weeks there have been several topics, connected in one way or another with Chechnya, about which you won't comment. Just so that we understand: is Chechnya in the same situation as all other regions of Russia, when it comes to adherence to Russian legislation? Or are there special conditions there now?
Dmitry Peskov: No there cannot be any special conditions for Chechnya. It's a subject of the Russian Federation, with all the judicial and other consequences that entails, and from the point of view of the system of applying legislation.
Maxim Kurnikov: That is to say that these statements which, as you say, you haven't familiarised yourself with, will be looked at in the Kremlin? In order to investigate to what extent they've really been acted upon?
Dmitry Peskov: Listen, we can't govern the country based on statements by the BBC, right? I'm saying that we can't accept statements by the BBC as a primary source about which […] we can comment.
Maxim Kurnikov: But the state-owned channel CGTRK Grozny also broadcast them. Admittedly, without a translation.
Dmitry Peskov: Without a translation? No, we're not aware of any such statements.
Maxim Kurnikov: So will they be investigated or not?
Dmitry Peskov: No, they won't.
― Ekho Moskvy, Blog, 6 November 2019