Civil war, secession and the body politic

Working with young people is important in any society. The recent story of an unusual Chechen initiative demonstrates why functional governance has so spectacularly failed to take root during the last 23 years.

Almut Rochowanski
7 March 2014

‘Youth mobilisation’ is a constant theme in my work in the North Caucasus. It’s what the international aid agencies have been doing for a decade or more, it’s the local NGOs’ bread and butter, it’s on every regional government’s agenda and nowhere is it higher than in Chechnya, which spends 2% of its budget on youth policy – more than anywhere else in Russia. Even the federal government does its bit, funding the Mashuk summer camp, which brings together 3000 ‘young leaders’ from the region every year for a mix of patriotic pep talks, workshops and experiments with ethnic coexistence in close quarters. These are often well-meant, earnest affairs, run by people who genuinely care; and yet, they tend to fall flat. You pick 25 ‘young leaders’ from village schools, put them through a programme that ‘has changed their lives’ (according to their feed-back forms) and yet a few years later, 24 of them are concerned mostly with weddings and new furniture while the 25th was mobilised so successfully he is now at an elite Moscow university, all but lost to his community. Perhaps ‘mobilising’, as a transitive verb, is a contradiction in terms. 

The Club: beginnings

Efforts to mobilise youth are often well-meant and earnest, but they tend to fall flat.

There was one amorphous, informal initiative in Chechnya, one that never purposely went searching for ‘young leaders’ and never raised more money than a few roubles for cake and tea. Yet, within months of coming together, it pulled in the smartest, most original, thoughtful and driven young people from Grozny and beyond, so much so that when looking out the window during one session I wondered ‘who is even left out there now?’ This ‘club’ was just about games, discussions, ideas, sometimes art and films, but mostly, the company of like-minded, if idiosyncratic, peers. ‘Mobilising’ apparently makes more sense as an intransitive verb.

Without funding, the club was constantly in search of a home. Grozny is notorious for its bubble-like glut of empty real estate, but space where young people can gather without anyone trying to ‘own’ or control them is still desperately hard to come by. The club bounced from one university (‘we can’t have boys and girls sitting together’) to another (‘sure, we can give you space, but you have to take on our brand’) and then to a civil society resource centre which assigned a chaperone, who kept looking at her watch.

A rebuilt grozny showing a mosque and several new skyscrapers.

Despite massive spending and overworked civil servants, functional governance eludes Chechnya. CC Christiaan Triebert

One early option was a brand-new Temple of Learning, all polished marble, brass and shiny whiteboards: a private foreign languages school as some would have it, an Islamic centre according to others (among them my taxi driver, but also the people who put up the money behind it). However, when one club session there ended in a not-quite-voluntary religious sermon, the club’s organisers kept away from there, too.

A year ago, the club finally found a home, a modest ground-floor apartment hastily re-arranged into an ‘office’, offered by a local NGO that graciously handed over the keys. With this new-found stability, the community blossomed and the office was soon bursting at the seams ­– people in their teens and twenties squatting on the rug during sessions, hammering out new rules for their blissful new autonomy, one of them being ‘all decisions must be taken by group vote.’ The Temple of Learning, meanwhile, is located just around the corner, beckoning, especially to one segment of club members who are confident, with promising career prospects or just a strong sense of entitlement; well-educated and worldly by local standards, some even with international training; thinking of themselves as just a bit too big for little Chechnya - and all male. 


Within weeks, some of these young men, by then visibly straining against the club ethos of equal respect for everyone (even the oddballs and teenage girls!), were wooed by the Temple of Learning and proposed to move the club to this much more comfortable and prestigious venue. The club’s founders winced at the old memory of the imposed religious lectures, argued that there might be a dress code for the female club members (in fairness, it must be said that ultimately there wasn’t), and objected. In line with the new rules, an open vote was held, on the club’s social media page. It came out 60:40 in favour of staying at the office. And that was to be that.

The day of the next session arrived and, with none of the club’s founding members present, the leaders of the mutiny went ahead and held the session at the Temple. Online, a storm of bitter passions broke out. How could they so blithely ignore a democratic vote? A vote by their fellow club members, whom they knew and supposedly cherished as the best company Chechnya had to offer? Anguished discussions started breaking out on the club’s social media page. ‘No big deal’, wrote one of the brash mutineers, ‘it won’t kill the girls if they have to put on a head-scarf’. Broken-hearted and appalled, a 19-year old woman, who had been with the club from the first hour, posted, ‘and to think that I was sitting in one club with such people, and all along this is how they felt about me.’ 

Feelings were deeply hurt all around. The mutineers evaded questions about the principle of the matter by praising, maybe a shade too loudly, the advantages of the Temple – the space, the convenience, the free cake, the charming cleaning ladies. For a moment, there was a sense that this could be fixed, that this civil war would end and that they would all still be one club. And then, just as quickly, everyone understood that what had taken place was a full-blown secession and that there would from now on be two clubs. The quotes above are cited from memory, because (as might be expected from those who don’t feel strongly about votes and equality) the record of these lengthy, unflattering, and yet historic debates was unceremoniously deleted from the club’s page, as if none of it had ever happened. 

A parable

This episode made democracy viscerally, painfully real to dozens of young people.

Does this anecdote mean Chechen society is ‘not ready for democracy’?  Wouldn’t that be a convenient excuse for the entrenched, unaccountable, soul-crushing authoritarianism that has settled on Chechnya? Far from it. If anything, this episode made democracy viscerally, painfully real to dozens of young people, many of whom will undoubtedly play a major role in the future of their community. Braving the ridicule of their peers and siding with principle over perks and prestige, they took a stance for democracy and respect for each person’s voice and dignity.

To me, this episode illustrates something far more complicated and subtle, but which nevertheless goes a long way towards explaining why every political arrangement of the past twenty three years in Chechnya has failed to deliver functional governance, at times spectacularly, devastatingly so. This includes the current rule, now in its eighth year, of Ramzan Kadyrov, because as dictatorships go, this one certainly doesn’t make the trains run on time. What happened in this microcosm of Chechnya’s best and brightest urban youngsters is a sort of parable of why this may be the case. Here, an earnest attempt at formal, social organisation, at institution-building of the sort that underpins all governance and statecraft anywhere, foundered on the ingrained indifference towards such institutions that prevails across Chechen society (and that of quite a few of its neighbours, too). And with no formal institutions and rules, the sort that make a community of citizens out of random individuals and are built on implicit consensus, the prospects for effective governance are not good.

Chechen refugee children in Georgia in 1999. Their clothes are ragged.

Chechen refugees in Georgia in 1999. The tight social links binding Chechen society also impede formal governance. CC IHH TurkeyA brief recap of Chechnya’s post-Soviet history shows that during much of those 23 post-Soviet years, governance – the state’s most basic tasks, namely enforcing the law, providing such services as the populace has entrusted the government with and collecting the taxes necessary to do so – simply didn’t happen. During the 1990s, when political mobilisation ran comparatively high, at least around the quasi-governmental spectacles enjoyed by the separatist elites (such as commissioning a set of armed services’ uniforms, including naval ones – never mind that Chechnya is landlocked), the state, or whatever groups claimed to represent it, abandoned all pretence of law enforcement and service provision. Thereafter, ever since the Russian government wrested back control in the early 2000s and installed its powerful local allies in government, the reconstituting of government functions has stubbornly lagged behind the physical reconstruction that has famously transformed Chechnya’s towns, villages and roads. This despite massive federal budgetary subsidies, feverish recruitment campaigns by local authorities, hosts of seconded experts from all over Russia and the puzzling fact that many public servants work exhausting 60-hour weeks. Some strong subversive forces must be at work for all this input to have so little effect.

The web of relationships

Life as a Chechen doesn’t lack for rules. Every Chechen is born into a tightly woven net of obligations and entitlements that regulate his or her conduct towards every other member of their community. Every Chechen has a built-in relationship with every other Chechen, based on age, gender, family background, geographic origin of their kin and role within their own family. Most Chechens relish this and seek to make the connection ever closer. Watch two Chechens meet for the first time and you witness a peculiar ritual unfold. Their very first conversation will be an attempt to find out how they are connected to each other; within a minute, they will have tracked down a second-degree aunt who is married to their new acquaintance’s cousin on their mother’s side. Or siblings who studied together. Or the fact that their grandfathers used to be neighbours during their exile in Kazakhstan. This is followed by satisfied smiles on both sides, because they have just confirmed what underpins Chechen social structure – the fact that they’re all, in a way, family. And although the rules that govern this overgrown family are strict and complicated, they are based on this perceived intimacy, on a notion that ‘we are among friends, we can deal with each other on a personal level.’

The body politic and the need for rules

In Chechen society, as in any community based on closeness and informal ties, more abstract norms for governing organised group action can seem forced, over-the-top, pedantic, even ridiculous. Imagine taking minutes and recording votes at the dinner table, or putting out a tender when planning a school reunion. Thus, our mutineers who left for the Temple were probably surprised by the ferocious response of their fellow club members. After all, it was just a little voting app on social media, no different from the other games they play online. Among friends, in an informal setting, formal rules do not apply, and the vote could thus be safely ignored.

Rules, institutions and procedures are indispensable. They make a group of people into a ‘body politic.’

There is a moment when an informal community of family and friends merges into something more formal, more abstract, an organism that requires appropriate institutions and procedures that are deliberately put in place to preserve functionality and efficiency, but also values like equality, individual rights and transparency. Such rules, institutions and procedures are indispensable. They make a group of people into a ‘body politic’. 

By persistently rejecting abstract, formal, ‘political’ rules of collective social organisation in their dealings with each other, Chechen society has never quite graduated from an extended family to such a body politic. This, I suspect, is what brought about the rapid descent into failed-state doom during the separatist 1990s. It may be the reason why the authoritarian leadership of today, despite the massive resources at its disposal and its obsession with micro-managing every aspect of citizens’ lives, is daily thwarted by large-scale power cuts and in all its seven years in power has been unable to increase the number of kindergarten places to above 10%. People in the Chechen Republic are painfully aware of these failures and deeply frustrated by them, yet also have a strong sense of being owed better, fairer, more effective governance.

There are two clubs in Grozny these days: one still meeting at the Temple, the other, the ‘Office’, recently homeless after the NGO landlord had run out of funding. The Office found a temporary home in a library. It is still big on rules and democracy – the most recent vote was on whether to invest their modest endowment in an electric tea kettle. The young people in both clubs will one day, and quite soon, run this republic. Some of them already work high up in government. They’re all fervently patriotic and can go on and on about the grand ideas they have for their homeland. If they want to finally turn things around on their watch, if they want to catch up with even just the rest of Russia (low-hanging fruit, when it comes to effective governance), they will have to think long and hard about what government means, what institutions are for and how their community can turn itself a body politic. They will do well to remember the lessons of building an institution, of drawing up rules, voting on them and then actually heeding them; and why it all matters. Lessons learned in a run-down Grozny apartment which for a year was the centre of their universe.





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