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Ramzan Kadyrov, John Oliver and the power of ridicule

As we hunt for the Chechen leader’s cat online, are we falling into the dictator’s trap? 

Karena Avedissian
3 June 2016
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Like me, I'm an autocrat: Kadyrov cradles his missing cat for his Instagram audience. Source: Instagram. Comedian John Oliver brought Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov into American homes on his show Last Week Tonight in late May, when he mocked the controversial figure for his Instagrammed appeal to find his missing cat. 

As a general overview of Kadyrov’s Instagram account, Oliver’s segment was quite comprehensive. The show noted Kadyrov’s work outs (one of his most frequent type of Instagram posts), prompting Oliver to call Kadyrov “a can of Monster Energy drink come to life”. It profiled Kadyrov’s conspicuous love of Putin, evidenced by the numerous posts of Kadyrov and his associates wearing Putin t-shirts.

It also featured Kadyrov’s love of animals, segueing into his lost cat. American programmes hardly cover Russian regional politics at all, and yet here, the hashtag #FindKadyrovsCat was born.

It is so amusing to watch that it is easy to forget how terrifying Kadyrov really is

Until that point, media focus on the leader’s Instagram antics has been primarily limited to Russia- and Eurasia-centric outlets read by people interested in the region. Like the area-focused coverage, the Last Week Tonight segment, although having made perfunctory references to Kadyrov’s crimes, largely made Kadyrov’s Instagram into a sideshow.

Watching Kadyrov is undeniably entertaining. The Chechen strongman is crude, often funny, narcissistic, and unpredictable. He is an awkward synthesis of machismo and childlike enthusiasm.

It is so amusing to watch that it is easy to forget how terrifying Kadyrov really is.

Chechnya’s security forces, under the direct command of Kadyrov, are implicated in scores of house-burnings, enforced disappearances, beatings, torture, and extrajudicial murder. The culture of impunity that surrounds Kadyrov and his regime results in people being too afraid to report the crimes. Furthermore, any inquiries into the many Chechens disappeared during the two wars that are still unaccounted for are blocked and initiators intimidated by the authorities. 

The internet: no country for dictators

The way Kadyrov handled Oliver’s mockery points to the personal insecurities that his Instagram project as a whole reveals.

Kadyrov is not used to dealing with ridicule with such reach – Last Week Tonight’s audience cannot be compared to the readership of the Russia-focused outlets that usually cover his Instagram. Kadyrov’s response – a photoshopped image of John Oliver wearing a Putin t-shirt and ostensibly saying, in clumsy English-language text, “I’m tired of jokes. I want to care for cats in Chechnya. By the way, Putin is our leader!” points to the fact that he really was offended. 

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Kadyrov's Instagram returns fire: John Oliver appears in Putin t-shirt. Source: Instagram

.It is perhaps par for the course that Kadyrov, an archetypal autocrat, is uncomfortable with the un-governability of international news, and especially the internet — where every user plays a role and even dictators can be ridiculed. 

Kadyrov can’t shut the internet down, he'd be doing away with one of his most important tools of governance 

Kadyrov cannot influence HBO, the network that hosts Oliver’s show. He could technically shut the Internet down in Chechnya, as despots around the world have done in order to limit the ability of his constituents to find critical material about him. But he will not. Chechnya is a subsidiary of Russia “for now” (as friends in neighbouring Dagestan playfully describe the republic). Perhaps more importantly, Kadyrov can’t shut the internet down — he’d be doing away with one of his most important tools of governance.

Kadyrov’s response to John Oliver is representative of what his Instagram account does on every other given day. It serves as a mechanism both to curry favour with Russian President Vladimir Putin and to project and impose Kadyrov’s worldview. 

Federal budget cuts and loyalty displays

Kadyrov’s outward displays of loyalty to Russia and Putin are done to keep the Chechen leader in the Kremlin’s good graces. This is important because it’s evidence that the original rules of the game have changed. Before, it was widely believed that the deal between Moscow and Grozny involved Kadyrov’s keeping Chechnya stable in exchange for support (and, to a large extent, carte blanche) from the Kremlin.

It seems that now, in light of recent federal budget cuts due to Russia’s financial crisis, mere stability isn’t enough. Kadyrov feels he needs to do more to maintain his position. Chechnya, as a subject of the Russian Federation, is, after all, the recipient of the largest portion of the federal budget and its elite is now long used to luxurious spoils derived from its graft. 

Chechnya, as a subject of the Russian Federation, is the recipient of the largest portion of the federal budget

Instagram’s function of projecting Kadyrov’s worldview is meanwhile interesting in that it reveals an attempt to be culturally influential beyond the borders of Chechnya and even Russia. Both functions serve to build social and political capital for an increasingly insecure leader. 

For all of Kadyrov’s crudeness that the media, John Oliver included, tends to spotlight, Kadyrov’s Instagram is a fairly sophisticated tool of soft-authoritarianism. Kadyrov’s use of the platform represents his ability to reflexively respond to political shifts in the post-Soviet sphere, impacted as it is by complex political and social changes brought on by globalisation.

Kadyrov is introducing lifestyle politics, arranging political and social meaning around his personal values (e.g. “We leave the gym, vivacious and cheerful. And I, as always, am off to the track and to the pool!”) via the logic of the “ the personal is political”. He also uses himself as an example in speaking for Islam, and in defining what is “proper”.

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February 2016: Ramzan Kadyrov speaks as he attends celebrations marking Defenders of the Fatherland Day in Chechnya's capital Grozny. (c) Musa Sadulayev / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Kadyrov highlights his family as well, often as a vehicle to promote the cult of personality constructed around himself and his father. Of course, these communications do not provide new insights into governance, nor do they increase transparency.

The posting of personal content, however, does constitute the construction of a parasocial relationship with the audience; in other words, what celebrities do when they talk about the mundane, personal details of life. It begins to feel like face-to-face interaction. With the seemingly spontaneous, interactive platform of Instagram, there is a sense of intimacy that an audience does not normally have with traditional political leaders, especially in the post-Soviet world.

In this way, Kadyrov augments the political capital he’s already afforded through the sheer power and coercion he wields in real life with this manufactured parasocial relationship, driven by his own everyday life.

The internet can be used to cement autocratic survival by influencing public opinion

As coercion, repression and violence certainly still constitute a significant part of Kadyrov’s rule, his activities online do not represent an abandoning of those means of power. Rather, they reveal an attempt to shift to a more sophisticated mix of both coercion and consent. It supports recent ideas that the internet can be used to cement autocratic survival by influencing public opinion.

Local attitudes toward Kadyrov – subversive ridicule?

To what extent however does his Instagram account influence public opinion about him in Chechnya? If it is true that Kadyrov’s social media project is aimed at recasting Chechen national identity into a pro-Russian one, as I have argued in the past, then Chechens probably need better convincing.

There are a multitude of alternative Chechen discourses that oppose Kadyrov. We just do not have access to very much of it, besides that which is generated by Chechen Islamic fighters – already Kadyrov’s number one enemy, and the Chechen diaspora in Europe, who Kadyrov has recently personally threatened

What, however, of the Chechens in Chechnya? Until we know how ordinary Chechens accept and internalise Kadyrov’s social media project and his governance as a whole, we cannot know if it is hegemonic and “taken for granted”. And given Kadyrov’s total intolerance of mockery and criticism, we cannot know much.

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October 2015: A huge portrait of Russian president Vladimir Putin and a sign reading "To the best president, Happy Birthday" covers the pitch of the Akhmat Arena, Grozny. (c) Musa Sadulayev / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved. I do know of one particularly exceptional example: Some time before the summer of 2012, Tamila Sagaipova, a well-known Chechen pop-singer, rumoured to be one of Kadyrov’s “wives” recorded a private, unreleased love song about Kadyrov. In it she sings about each of his other various “wives”, mentioning something unflattering about them. One is like a child, another like a professor. The refrain went something like: “But I’m your favourite tonight.” 

After a minor car accident, Sagaipova’s mobile phone, which had a recording of that song, fell into an unidentified person’s hands. The ballad went low-key viral, gaining immediate notoriety, all while remaining underground. Every recording that turned up online was deleted immediately, and people sharing it were subject to retribution. Some time later, Sagaipova went to a petrol station, and the employees, wanting to have some fun, played that song over the loudspeakers.

That sort of subversive ridicule is amazing, given the context, in its openness and bravado. Unsurprisingly, it did not end well for the pranksters: Sagaipova, furious, made a phone call and almost immediately, regime thugs swept in, beat up the employees and last I heard, seized the business from the owner.

We have almost no idea how residents of Chechnya regard Kadyrov’s social media project 

Although we get numerous hot takes from western media and people on Twitter, we have almost no idea how residents of Chechnya regard Kadyrov’s social media project. That lack of more detailed information constitutes a huge gap in our knowledge when we consider governance in Chechnya. 

We do know some things that deserve more attention. For example, just a few days before Kadyrov’s cat went missing and Oliver made fun of him on national TV, a Chechen villager criticised Kadyrov on a video sent to a Dagestani publication. His house was burnt down, his wife and three daughters deported under death threats.

A young Chechen man who criticised Kadyrov on an Instagram post, saying “These events go back 15 years. Not 150, not 300, but 15!” in an apparent reference to Putin’s tenure, was forced to walk on a treadmill with no trousers on Chechen television.

A local human rights activist featured in the documentary Grozny Blues, who spoke about repression and justice in the republic was kidnapped in October 2015 by unidentified men. Her whereabouts were unknown for several days. When she returned, she denied she had anything to criticise at all.

Even Russian officials are not immune to retribution from Kadyrov. Earlier this year a deputy from Krasnoyarsk criticised Kadyrov on social media. He publicly apologised for his words following a visit by an unnamed person from the Chechen community

Daily violence is a fact of life in Grozny and in the region, but is not represented in Kadyrov’s Instagram, because it is a tool to project a different, more positive image. 

At the end of the day, Kadyrov’s cat got more attention than the people who have been disappeared by his regime. That is perhaps what Kadyrov’s intended role for Instagram has always been.

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