February 8, 2018

In December 2017, Instagram suspended the account of the head of the Chechen Republic (Russia), Ramzan Kadyrov (kadyrov_95), under the Magnitsky Act; the law that allows the U.S. government to impose sanctions upon Russian politicians who commit human rights violations. At the same time, Kadyrov has been named the most media-cited blogger among Russia’s regional leaders (according to a 2017 ranking published by Medialogia). What is the purpose of this notorious autocratic leader’s connection to social networks, and what does it teach us about political use of the online space?

In the era of the Arab Spring, communication scholars were excited to discuss the democratic qualities of social networks: They appeared to ease horizontal connections; to facilitate fast and efficient mobilization of protestors; and to communicate and discuss opposing ideas censorship-free. This enthusiasm has waned in recent years as internet platforms have shown their dark side; from annoying target advertising to collection and disclosure of private information, surveillance, trolling and dissemination of fake news.

One politician understood early on how online technology could be useful for not only protestors and the opposition, but for an authoritarian leader, like himself. Ramzan Kadyrov, the long-time ruler of Chechnya (a republic in the North Caucasus region of Russia) and autocrat who controls the republic once ravaged by wars with an iron fist, has become a popular Instagrammer with over 3 million followers. He has been using social networking for control and micro-management, making his regime more efficient.

The power of Kadyrov in the small mountainous republic is close to absolute. His word means everything and is much more important than any law — there’s even a set expression among the locals; “Ramzan said,” meaning that something must be implemented immediately. Those who do not follow his orders can be severely punished; being fired from one’s job is the mildest form of possible repercussions.

Kadyrov needs to directly micro-manage his republic, to preserve his power and ensure that his orders are obeyed. To do so efficiently, he has mastered the use of social networking. He has employed two primary tools, Instagram and WhatsApp, to make his know-how system work.

WhatsApp is a mobile application that allows messages to be sent either directly to a person or to a group of people. In the North Caucasus, this app has been extremely popular — people have multiple groups for communicating with friends, family, activist groups and people from work. Kadyrov tapped into this source and learned to utilize it to his advantage in order to quickly and efficiently send his orders to various ministers and heads of the departments in the republic. They, in turn, send them down to the groups of their employees, such as a WhatsApp group for the workers of the Ministry of Press. This helps Kadyrov avoid lengthy meetings and cut through endless red tape, transforming his wishes into reality almost immediately.

As I was told, it was sometimes tricky for the state workers, due to the brief and often cryptic character of Kadyrov’s messages, to understand what he meant; but they were too scared to ask. It was a risk and a source of additional tension for the employees. They could guess his wishes correctly and be rewarded; or guess wrongly and be punished. There is a popular anecdote told in Chechnya about how once Kadyrov said that the alcohol should be only sold in the republic from 8 to 10. The bureaucrats, too scared to ask whether he meant 10 in the evening or 10 in the morning, opted for 10 in the morning. So today, alcohol in Chechnya can only be bought from 8 to 10 a.m.

While WhatsApp has been used as a tool to pass down an order, Instagram has long worked as a system of control to check if the order has been followed. Once an assignment is accomplished, a bureaucrat rushes to take a photo of the result and post it on his or her Instagram account — be that a happy village man who had his fence repaired or a meeting organized to protest the activity of some foreign-funded NGO. Once, after my colleague and I had interviewed a high-standing Chechen state employee, he suggested that we take a photo together so he could report our meeting on his Instagram; it took us a while to persuade him not to do so. The highest praise for the accomplishment would be a “like” from Kadyrov himself, to which the state worker would automatically respond with a comment like, “thank you for your ‘like’.”

Most Instagram accounts of the Chechen functionaries are a tool; a formality; and aside from the reports on their work, they contain re-posts and photos of their work routine.

However, Kadyrov’s Instagram has been much more than that. Before it was blocked, his account had over 3 million followers and had been widely cited not only in Russia, but internationally. Often ridiculed and made fun of abroad (thus, John Oliver’s famously mocked Kadyrov’s post about missing a cat), Kadyrov’s account was everything but boring. He managed to make his posts strangely attractive by combining outrageous political statements with very personal accounts of the life, of his family, his daily sports routines, having fun with his friends, playing in the snow, hugging kittens and tigers, catching fish and picking flowers for his wife.

When he started his account in February 2013, his first posts were simple; bordering on naïve; writing a few sentences about eating dinner at his mom’s place, going to the dentist’s office to fix his teeth or enjoying a meal with friends. He even posted a mobile phone number, which he claimed to check personally, and asked anyone who had any problems to call that number so that he could help.

Soon, Kadyrov’s Instagram turned into virtual space where common people could not only peek into the leader’s life, but also reach out to him with their problems and concerns. People from the republic (and elsewhere) started flooding his comments’ section, asking for help. It was not all in vain. Kadyrov did follow these complaints and often provided help to those who needed it. His employees would contact them and make sure that they were telling the truth about their misfortunes. Kadyrov was known for personally calling some of them, sometimes in the middle of the night, asking whether they indeed had issues and promising his support. Soon, a whole new genre appeared on the local TV; a genre that was entirely based on complaints about Kadyrov’s Instagram. A crew of TV reporters would go to the living quarters of a person who issued a complaint and show either how Kadyrov’s men victoriously fixed the problem (in case the problem was real); or publicly shamed; or even punished the person who complained about something that would turn out to be untrue.

In recent years, the genre of public shaming evolved and started applying to those whose complaints suggested that Kadyrov himself was to be blamed. This “public shaming scheme” that has been operational for the last several years has been described in detail by the Russian journalist Alexandr Borzenko in his article for Meduza.io. In brief, it involves locating the person who critiqued Kadyrov’s actions; finding this person guilty (often with the help of a special “committee” consisting of the people loyal to the leader); and as a final accord, creating and distributing a video where this person publicly apologizes and admits his or her mistake. One such case involves a video of a young man who apologizes while walking on a treadmill with his pants taken off; a particularly humiliating image in Chechnya. While in the early days of existence of Kadyrov’s Instagram, the Chechen leader was more willing to help people with their problems. In the last several years it has become increasingly dangerous to express complaints altogether. Any complaint can be viewed as a veiled critique of Kadyrov’s regime and lead to a forced apology and humiliation.

Mass media in Chechnya are almost entirely state-owned. After the second Chechen war, the whole infrastructure, including the medias’, was destroyed and then restored with state funding. While not being able to critique any of the political actions in the republic and being tightly controlled by the local authorities, local journalists whom I spoke with often said that they found it fulfilling when they could help people in Chechnya by writing about their problems and helping them connect with the state. Kadyrov discouraged local journalists even further by almost entirely taking this function away from them.

His Instagram account turned out to be a much more effective resource for getting in touch with the state authorities than any of articles published in the local press. Once a Chechen journalist bitterly told me that if all the Chechen media magically disappeared, no one would notice the difference. The main media in the republic is, by all means, Kadyrov’s Instagram (that is, before it was blocked). Through his Instagram account, Kadyrov managed to circumvent media by creating his own mediated image of a “friendly dictator,” a firm but friendly leader; and he often received positive and encouraging comments from all around Russia; with people praising his decisiveness, strength and dedication to his people. By mastering social media while remaining a cruel and unforgiving autocratic leader, Kadyrov also managed to project the image of someone who is open, transparent and available for his people. Paradoxically, this autocrat could utilize to his absolute advantage all the tools that were supposed to be incompatible with authoritarian-style leadership.  

Since December 2017, both Instagram and Facebook accounts of the Chechen leader have been blocked. But Kadyrov has now mastered the art of “social networking” and has moved on to other platforms; substituting Instagram and Facebook with Telegram, Vkontakte and MyListory; the new social network that has been recently created in Chechnya. Meanwhile, he has found a solid reason to publicly accuse the American government of censorship and of contradicting the principles of free speech.

Kadyrov’s story demonstrates how technological progress and the development of the new media can not only serve political progress, but might also be useful to the politicians whose ruling style belongs more to the Middle Ages than to the 21st century. This question remains: is blocking these politicians’ accounts the only solution? This narrative about a leader of a small republic transcends its geographical context. It highlights the issues of informational freedom in the era of internet, emphasizing the new level of tension that online technologies have introduced to the relationship between freedom of speech, censorship and democratic values.

Elena Rodina
 is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Media, Technology, and Society at Northwestern University (Evanston, Il) and a Critical Theory Program fellow at Sciences Po (Paris). Before that, she worked as a print journalist in Russia for over eight years, including being a full-time special correspondent for 
Esquire (Russia) and Ogoniok. She is currently doing research on journalistic resistance practices in Russia, focusing on the region of the North Caucasus.