As pro-independence narrative is revived in Chechnya, we examine its long-term implications. Over the past 12 to 18 months one of the hottest topics of the Russian-speaking internet community has been videos and debates of the Chechen blogger Tumso Abdurakhmanov. He has lived in exile in Poland since 2017.
Tumso’s video blogs and live YouTube debates have garnered hundreds of thousands and at times millions of views due to his absolutely honest positions coupled with logic and superb eloquence that challenge the Russian established order in Chechnya.
The blogger’s popularity reached such a level that it became impossible to ignore him, forcing the second most powerful official of Chechnya, Magomed Daudov, to engage in a live Instagram debate with Tumso.
After Daudov’s live debate, several Russian and Chechen public figures took on Tumso in live debates but judging from comments and other online reactions, none of the debaters managed to impress the public with their counterarguments that re-mained mostly wedded to the official Russian government narrative.
However, it is not the popularity of the blogger that requires analysis, but the long-term implications of the positions Tumso has revived and expressed. Since Russia defeated the pro-independence movement in Chechnya, which later mutated into a Wahhabi insurgency, there was an intellectual vacuum within the pro-independence camp in Chechnya and the wider North Caucasus. The intellectual argument and power were completely in Moscow’s favor. The Kremlin and its local subordinates had a very convincing narrative that can be summed up as follows: our policies and actions brought peace to the region and the pro-independence camp failed to put forward a coherent project beyond an armed insurrection. The terrorist and salafi methodology of the pro-independence movement during the second Chechen war (1999–2004) caused it to lose support within its immediate constituency. Senseless violence by the pro-independence camp during the second Chechen war led to a decrease in support within the Russian population, of which a significant portion sympathized with the plight of Chechens during the first Chechen war (1994–1996).
The unique aspect of Tumso’s intellectual challenge to the Russian narrative in Chechnya is his admission of grave mistakes committed by the pro-independence camp due to its non-Islamic practice of targeting innocent civilians and other policy failures. Prior to Tumso’s emergence, most of the pro-independence narrative centered around the framework put forward by the Wahhabist insurgency groups.
This narrative did not find broad appeal after 1999 and its intellectual shallowness was evident. Tumso’s ability to root his intellectual challenge within traditional Sunni Islam and distance the pro-independence position from the Wahhabi narrative is a significant intellectual and political challenge to Moscow’s established order in Chechnya and the wider North Caucasus.
The question that needs to be analyzed is whether Moscow and its regional representatives are capable of mounting a counter-challenge to the framework voiced by Tumso, with which millions in the North Caucasus identify but are afraid to voice publicly. So far, the primary response of the authorities to the growing popularity of Tumso’s video blogs has been to resort to security force use. The recent detention of another popular exiled Chechen blogger, Mansur Sadulayev, on Russian Interpol request is a clear manifestation of the fact that Moscow sees its security agencies as the primary vehicle in countering the pro-independence narrative in the North Caucasus.
The authorities in Chechnya are threatening people for distributing the videos of exiled Chechen bloggers and those ascribing to Tumso’s opinions are framed as extremists by the state financed media. This sort of response adds further strength to Tumso’s perspective that paints Russia and its regional administrators as occupiers and oppressors. Prior to Tumso’s popularity the pro-independence camp centered its narrative primarily on armed insurrection with a simplistic socio-political program. While Tumso does not condemn or exclude armed resistance, his challenge is more political and intellectual. This is what makes his views problematic for the Russian established order in the North Caucasus.
The response of Moscow and its regional representatives to resort to a security-based approach to Tumso’s narrative is flawed. It might trigger an armed insurrection that is not rooted in Wahhabism, thus creating a broader appeal that would destabilize Russia. The only sensible alternative to challenging Tumso’s revived pro-independence narrative is political. This requires courage by Russia’s political elite and its regional administrators to admit fundamental flaws in state constructed narratives and mistakes in its policies. It appears that officials in Moscow and the North Caucasus see admission of mistakes as a manifestation of weakness that they think they cannot afford. Countering Tumso’s narrative would also require loosening the security-based policies in the region. The ruling elites in Moscow and Chechnya do not seem ready to implement this. They view it as a retreat, a notion anathema to them. However, it must be noted that Tumso’s projection into Chechnya’s social and media landscape triggered a robust discussion on hitherto taboo subjects. In fact, an influential Russian newspaper, Kommersant, highlighted that through discussing Tumso’s views openly, the official Chechen leadership injected a significant dosage of liberalization into local politics, of which other Russian regions could be jealous.
Considering the global political situation, it cannot be ruled out that Russia’s opponents in the West will use the revived pro-independence narrative in the North Caucasus as a tool to destabilize Russia. There is much bad blood between a significant percentage of the Chechen population and the current regime in Chechnya. A large Chechen diaspora resides in Europe scattered in many EU countries. Their role in the Ukrainian conflict is a clear sign that if the West creates an opening for them to confront Russia, they will answer the call.
This turn of events can be averted if Moscow chooses to play a long-term game. Instead of ignoring the elephant in the room, it should reconcile with the Chechen diaspora in the West in a manner that would create socio-political space for their peaceful presence in the North Caucasus.
A security-based response to the pro-independence narrative is adding fuel to the fire that NATO will exploit. Overall, the pro-independence narrative does not present a strategic threat to Russia yet, as it is poorly developed on a socio-political level and lacks political depth. The only aspect that raises the credibility of the pro-independence narrative is Moscow’s heavy hand in dealing with political dissent. Russia possesses solid federal structures and a relatively flexible socio-political policy that can accommodate the pro-independence camp in the North Caucasus without pushing them into NATO’s eager arms.