Russian political commentator Alexey Malashenko believes that the public humiliation of Zakayev is an “absolutely normal event” when it comes to Kadyrov’s propaganda. “Zakayev enjoys quite a lot of authority, not least because he isn’t afraid of Kadyrov, whilst Kadyrov can’t bear any competition,” Malashenko said in an interview.
Tumso Abdurakhmanov, a prominent blogger who lives in Poland, explains that “Zakayev is a convenient whipping boy”, as the “Kadyrovites have plenty to criticise him for.” According to Abdurakhmanov, Kadyrov’s propaganda has previously broadcast evidence that the leadership of the Chechen independence movement has criticised Zakayev, which is then used to discredit all supporters of Chechen independence.
After a wave of threats from officials, Ahmed Zakayev’s relatives were forced to disavow him for a second time. After doing this in 2016, Kadyrov then announced that Zakayev’s relatives in Chechnya would no longer be responsible for any actions and statements on the exiled leader’s part.
The people’s movement
In the aftermath of the Tepsurkayev video, the 1adat channel has now had four million views, its creators claim. I contacted them via the channel’s chatbot service, and the channel’s founder, who asks to be called Abdullah, says that the social media platform is run by seven administrators, most of whom live in Chechnya. According to Abdullah, all of the channel’s administrators have made critical remarks about the Chechen government on social media in the past – and were subject to unlawful persecution and torture as a result. The channel owners see their goal as “the liberation of the Chechen people from the government” and themselves – soldiers in an information war.
Abdullah tells me that in Chechnya, people can be abducted and tortured “for no reason at all” – and maximum publicity is therefore the most effective method of stopping torture and liberating a victim. “If family and relatives stay quiet, Kadyrovites can do what they like to the people they have abducted, even to the point of murder. But when information about a case is made public, they have to change their plans,” he says.
Talking about the situation in Chechnya and the low level of public trust in the republic’s rulers, 1adat moderators explain that a large part of the population, including public employees, are unhappy with the present state of affairs, where there is a total absence of human rights but no one will talk about it openly for fear of persecution.
“Everyone knows if someone were to attempt something against Kadyrov, Putin will step in with his troops – and people are just so tired of these wars. The people are only putting up with the situation to avoid a war,” they say.
Abdullah says that Chechen law enforcement began attempts to identify channel administrators back in June, trying to win the activists’ trust and feeding them leaked information. “We recognise the risks, of course, but before getting involved we looked at how to keep ourselves safe. We’re not afraid of being found out – that’s practically impossible,” he says, stating that the channel members have their own safety protocols.
Despite 1adat’s popularity, it’s hard to say that it has consolidated critics of the Chechen regime. The channel, for example, has accused Zakayev of trying to win political points in the Tepsurkayev case. They say they have tried to make contact with the London-based political émigré, but he has not responded.
The channel’s publications on abductions and torture are yet to garner any visible reaction among the Chechen public, and law enforcement has so far ignored 1adat’s reports of potential crimes. According to 1adat, Chechen law enforcement periodically check young people’s phones on the street for the presence of “dubious” content and subscriptions to unwelcome social media pages. Nevertheless, in recent months, 1adat has become a “newsmaker” of sorts in Russia’s North Caucasus, and is cited in independent regional media such as Caucasian Knot, OC Media and Kavkaz.realii.
How the Chechen government persecutes critics living in Chechnya
Salman Tepsurkayev’s story has been the centre of attention in Chechnya in the past two months. But it’s not the first time that government bodies have tortured and humiliated people who post negative comments about them online. 1adat regularly reports how local residents by the police authorities are unlawfully detained, but these reports are so far ignored or denied by relatives.
For example, earlier this year, nine teenagers, all members of the same Telegram chatroom, were arrested. They had used the chat, named Osalnakh 95 (“Unworthy people” in Chechen), to make fun of people from Chechnya – both people close to the Kadyrov leadership and ordinary citizens. In videos released on pro-government accounts, the teenagers publicly asked forgiveness for “unworthy behaviour and insulting respected people.”
Then, in October, a Grozny court convicted local resident Islam Nukhanov, who was abducted by police officers from his home a day after posting a video from Baronovka, the elite Grozny district where associates of Kadyrov own residences.