Signals of a new “hardline” attitude of the post-Maskhadov Chechen leadership toward the West and the Chechen diaspora are intensifying. One example is the campaign that has been unleashed against Albert Digaev, founder and webmaster of the well-known Chechen site “Amina.com.” In July of this year, a group calling itself the “Council of Chechen Alims” (Islamic learned persons or experts), and a second group that identifies itself as the “Assembly for the Defense of the Sovereignty of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria,” posted statements on the state information agency’s website “GIA Chechenpress” that denounced “Amina” as a site of “ideological diversion against Chechen society” and accused its webmaster of “information terrorism” and of “grave crimes” against the Chechen people. In their initial statements, the two groups drew attention mainly to the site’s photo gallery. They claimed it contains manyoffensive and slanderous commentaries, and accused Digaev of stealing or “hacking” photos from unsuspecting victims and intentionally posting scandalous materials to increase the number of visitors to the site, thus causing “a great number” of unresolved conflicts among Chechens all around the globe. The gravest (and unproven) charge was that Digaev caused the death of several young Chechen women who ostensibly committed suicide after finding their photos and inappropriate comments on his site .
Chechnya’s newest defenders against moral destruction seem to have discovered the site (or perhaps the Internet) as a potential hiding place of “anonymous virtual wreckers” only recently (“We are still researching how it is possible that such a scum went unnoticed and undiscovered by the Chechen secret services”), but Amina.com has actually been in existence and plain view for nearly ten years. It is one of the main Internet portals for Chechen youth in Russia and those who are in exile in Europe, the Middle East, and the United States. Apart from Russia and Chechnya, the greatest number of posts and photographs come from Belgium, France, Germany, and Norway. Discussion threads range from typical youth topics of love and courtship, to music, politics, history, and Chechen traditions. Amina is one of the few safe places where Chechen youth can communicate and share their notions of what being Chechen means, to argue with those who somehow offend those hotly debated standards, and to celebrate the beauty, style, and vigor of those who express them well. In the photo gallery, viewers are invited to leave ratings and comments, and the anonymity of the Internet tempts many to overstep the boundaries of what they could say to each other in real life, bound as they are to the strict moral and behavioral codes of Chechen families. Some of the material on the site has indeed been irreverent, and many of the comments rude, crudely appraising, and potentially unpleasant and offensive to those whom they concern. As a testament to this, there are numerous posts on “How to remove your picture from Amina” at KavkazChat.
The anti-Amina cause has been taken up by the “Assembly for the Defense of the Sovereignty,” formed in November 2004 under the leadership of Akhmad Sardali, chairman of the Caucasian Journalists’ Union. Sardali is known for his strident dismissal of Chechen Sufi traditions as an “historical aberration,” and advocacy of sharia law . He has made the “political” defense of the Chechen shadow state his goal, and in particular the supervision of Chechen representatives abroad. In an interview in July 2005 published by Kavkazcenter website, Sardali complained that Chechnya’s Foreign Ministry had become completely disconnected from changes taking place within the republic: “At home the mujahideen fight and die for certain ideals, and abroad completely different attitudes frequently set the tone—that is not only not acceptable, but dangerous.” He explained that the Assembly sees one of its main tasks as the defense of Chechen and Caucasian mujahideen from the “constant ideological and propagandistic attacks on the part of the West, Russia, and sometimes even our own side.”
The Digaev case shows very clearly how they and their supporters plan to go about fighting these dangerous influences. The issues that the existence of such websites raises for Chechen families are certainly important to discuss, but the “Council of Alims” has presented a completely distorted image of the Amina site and how it functions. The council has focused on the demonization of its founder, as if punishing or getting rid of Albert Digaev could somehow solve the problem of Chechen culture exposed to many new temptations and technologies. While it called on readers and “victims of the site” to send a formal letter of complaint to the website’s provider, the July 26 statement also identified Amina’s webmaster as a “worthless Chechen,” questioned his “true” ethnic origin, published his home address, and called on Chechen men living in the USA to “take care” of him. On KavkazChat.com the original Alims’ letter was republished as “Verdict on Albert Digaev,” and in response, a number of death threats to Digaev appeared on Amina.com, Kavkazchat.com, and other sites at the end of July and beginning of August. The “Assembly” has promised to “take all necessary means to punish the criminal,” and they have issued a steady stream of communiqués in which they continue to identify Digaev as a “terrorist,” “collaborationst-debaucher,” and “wrecker,” alleging that he has retaliated by hacking into and blocking the GIA Chechenpress site. Most interesting is the repetitive and misleading references to Digaev’s activities as “explosive,” considering that Amina.com is a website devoted to personal communication, while it is the “Assembly” that has vowed to shore up the armed struggle ideologically .
The new Chechen government’s formation of a special department for relations with the diaspora is a clear sign that these issues are very important. The Digaev case points to deepening rifts in post-Maskhadov Chechen society. If the plan in killing Maskhadov was to finish off the last of those talking about peace negotiations, and if the plan in instituting the Kadyrovshchina is to “Chechenize” the conflict and alienate the remaining segments of Chechen society completely from each other, then it is succeeding. The schism between those who stayed and those who have left during the last decade is increasing, and at stake is nothing less than Chechen youth, the future of the nation.
The youths’ own responses on various websites show disturbing signs of the hardening of fronts and the uncritical acceptance of totalitarian labels. Their discussion, as well, has centered almost entirely on Digaev and what he has or hasn’t done, accepting the projection of deeply rooted social problems onto one convenient scapegoat. Few have questioned the allegations of suicides: not a single post expressed remorse or sadness for the alleged victims, or concern for Digaev’s safety. None have addressed the rift between the values of thousands of Chechen youth, obsessed with physical beauty and appearance, who pose for and send their photos, and the traditional notions of honor and family that put such enormous pressures on young children and teenagers. Yet far more disturbing than these shortcomings is the heavy-handed and uncompromising attempts of the adults to control the youth sites. The Amina Internet community has always been one of the liveliest places on the Chechen Internet, but now it has become a battleground for unforgiving ideologues. In attacking the website and its founder, they are actually striking the youth who have been traumatized by ten years of war, leaving them only narrow and dangerous choices between uncompromising and exclusive notions of identity.
1. “Vyzov vsemu chechenskomu obshchestvu,” GIA Chechenpress, Letter Section, July 26, 2005, http://www.chechenpress.info/events/2005/07/26/09.shtml; and “Zaiavlenie Assamblei Zashchity Suvereniteta ChRI,” GIA Chechenpress, 29 July 2005, http://www.daymohk.info/cgi-bin/orsi3/index.cgi?id=14700;section=1#14700
2. A. Sardali, “Lestnitsa na nebesa,” http://farukislam.narod.ru/pages/analitika/sardali.htm.
3. “Albertom Digaevym zaimetsia FBR, GIA Chechenpress, September 22, 2005, http://www.chechenpress.info/events/2005/09/22/08.shtml15980.