How Telegram Channels have been used to organize protests in an area with a history of volatility
https://www.rt.com-Monument to Suleiman Stalsky in Makhachkala. © Sputnik/Denis Abramov
A crowd of women, visibly enraged, encircle a policeman and confront him about the ongoing mobilization and the objectives of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine. Dissatisfied with the response, they have a short discussion between them, after which they start chanting anti-war slogans. Within a few minutes, a scuffle breaks out between the police and disgruntled protesters.
Hundreds of residents of Makhachkala witnessed this scene as it unfolded in the very heart of the city on September 25, just as Dagestan’s capital celebrated its annual City Day.
But this demonstration, which coincided with the 165th anniversary of the southern Russian city, was by no means the only anti-mobilization rally in the region. According to local journalists, smaller protests had erupted in some parts of the republic as early as September 22. Spontaneous rallies broke out near the village of Endirey in the Khasavyurt District, with local residents blocking the road. A demonstration took place in the regional center of Khasavyurt, and in Makhachkala itself civil disorder continued for two entire days.
Nature of the Unrest
The protesters’ motivations varied from town to town. In some places, like Endirey, people were outraged by the excessive number of draft notices per village. For example, in a community of 8,000 people, as many as 110 men were to be called up. In a display of indignation, people decided to block one of the republic’s major transport corridors.
In some areas, locals complained that the army was enlisting those who had literally just returned from regular military conscription. Most importantly, and perhaps typical of the overall mobilization effort in Russia, the republic’s recruiting stations did not always adhere to official regulations and requirements. As a result, draft notices were sent to men who had not served in the army at all or had no combat experience.
All demonstrations in the Republic of Dagestan were quickly suppressed by the security forces. Multiple people were arrested, with violence being used in some cases. At one point, police officers even fired warning shots into the air. Footage of the clashes spread quickly across the internet, making headlines in international media outlets. This was an unprecedented situation for a region normally loyal to the federal authorities.
The most publicized developments unfolded in Makhachkala. Undeterred by the first crackdown, the protesters took to the streets on the following day. This time, the police took the initiative and mounted an even tougher response.
The nature of the protest and the harsh response of the local law enforcement agencies prompted an urgent meeting of public figures and government representatives. Following the session, they moved to establish an independent public commission to monitor compliance with the presidential decree on partial mobilization.
At the same time, the head of the Republic of Dagestan Sergey Melikov addressed the issue.
“If it’s a fact that people were mobilized who were not on the list – including students, fathers with multiple young children, folks who have never held a rifle in their life – it should be corrected immediately. I know that such mistakes were made at the very start of the mobilization.”
Melikov criticized the staff of the recruiting stations for “trying to draft as many people as possible instead of diligently selecting those who are actually fit to serve in the army.” He then promised to see to it personally that the situation is rectified.
Nothing personal, just bureaucracy
But that wasn’t the end of the story in Dagestan. Sergey Melikov went on to direct some serious criticism to his staffers a few more times. One such occasion was filmed and posted online. The head of the republic’s fury was caused in particular by a video report that had gone viral on social media. The video in question originated from Derbent, Dagestan’s fourth largest city, whose history goes back six millennia.
It showed a number of vehicles cruising the city and delivering a message via loudspeakers, calling on “all male residents to report to the local recruitment offices immediately.” Derbent’s administration tried to justify this move by saying their database lacked personal data for all residents entitled to the right to the mobilization waiver.
Melikov called it “utter nonsense” as well as “fake information dissemination,” adding some swear words addressed to the organizers of this operation, a mode of speech generally unseen and unheard-of in Dagestan’s public discourse.
“How was it even possible for Derbent’s recruitment authority to sanction its staffers to spread such a message? “All male residents of Derbent are to report to the local recruitment offices immediately.” What the *** is this, you idiots? Are you *** nitwits?!” Melikov was heard saying at the Regional Security Council meeting.
After receiving such a brutal scolding, the chief recruitment officer apologized on camera and urged city residents “not to succumb to panic.” Prior to that, an official apology to the residents of Derbent was offered by the head of the republic himself.
Only time will tell whether it will be enough to appease the people of Dagestan who have been inflamed by the sloppy actions of the local recruitment offices and administrations. The locals are convinced that it was a desire to just report the required recruitment numbers at any cost that led to the unrest.
“It has always been this way, and will probably be like that forever. No one in the recruitment offices or administration does their job properly, and when they receive an order from the higher authorities, they just go on to pressure people into complying. I hope that the head of the republic and the president will fix this and punish those who are guilty [of enacting faulty mobilization practices],” Kurban, a local resident, told RT.
He added that perhaps people would trust the local officials more if their own sons were among the first ones to join the action in the warzone. This opinion gets a lot of support among the local users of social media.
The truth is that many officials and their family members, both from Dagestan as well from all over Russia, are already fighting in the operation. In Babayurt district, for example, an official working with the local recruitment office, Nelli Wolf, saw her son leaving for the frontlines in Ukraine. An MP of Dagestan’s parliament Rasim Gadzhigayev was among the first to join the special military operation. According to the Speaker of the Dagestani Parliament Zaur Askenderov, nine more MPs were served the summons to report for duty. In the town of Buynaksk, also in Dagestan, notices were served to all members of the city parliament. The former head of the neighboring republic of Ingushetia, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, lost his nephew in the hostilities in Ukraine.
The same is true for other Russian regions. The government of Samara Region reported recently that almost 300 officials and MPs there have been summoned to join the special military operation, among them staffers of local ministries and the governor’s administration. In Primorsky Region, according to Governor Oleg Kozhemyako, who has visited the special operation zone many times himself to support the troops, 150 of the region’s MPs and administration staffers have been summoned to join the operation.
Among the new recruits who joined the troops on the ground are the children of founder of the private military company Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Republic of Crimea Sergey Aksyonov and dozens of other high-level Russian statesmen.
However, this kind of information usually evades the attention of the online audience, which seems to be more likely to notice messages that assert the opposite.
Information weapons of mass destruction
“What happened today in Makhachkala was a provocation by people outside Dagestan and opportunistic admins of local online communities paid by the West,” Kamil Saidov, Minister of Youth Affairs of Dagestan said.
The President of Dagestan and the FSB believe that Ukraine’s Special Operations Forces (SSO) are behind these protests, which are organized through anonymous Telegram accounts.
“We are quite certain that the channels which rallied people to disturb the public order in the region are under the control of the Center for Ideological and Psychological Operations of the Central Intelligence Office of the Special Operations Forces of Ukraine,” Sergey Melnikov said.
Killnet hacker community members confirm this. They’ve analyzed financial transactions and circulation of information from the Dagestan Morning Telegram channel, which spearheaded the local riot.
According to Killnet’s information, over five billion rubles (around $77.2 million) were pumped into the channel since March 2022. The current balance of the administration’s crypto wallet is around 8.5 million rubles (almost $130,000). The explanation for these figures, astronomical for a social media community, is simple – Dagestan Morning is just an entry point. Its message spread rapidly across other Telegram channels immediately after the first call to action was posted, just as planned.
Moreover, it wasn’t only extremist Caucasian and radical Islamic communities that collaborated with Dagestan Morning. Reposting analysis has shown that messages appeared on Ukrainian Telegram channels as well: from Aleksandr Nevzorov, a Soviet and later Russian journalist and a fresh Ukrainian citizen, to Alexey Arestovich, an adviser to the President of Ukraine. But there’s more: the organizers of this informational diversion also reposted to the Belarusian Telegram network.
Another argument for the contrived nature of the action is the speed and efficiency with which the anonymous admins spread their message.
The first posts slamming the partial mobilization began to appear on Dagestanian channels as early as September 21, immediately after President Vladimir Putin and the Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu had addressed the nation. Simultaneously, information began to appear about the supposed plans to draft 13,000 people in the Republic.
And the next day, local communities published the first calls for protest. By September 25, a critical level was achieved, which coincided with the first offline meeting. The protesters demanded the cancellation of the mobilization campaign, saying, among other things, that “too many of us have been drafted already!” –expressing the very same idea that appeared on social media earlier.
The message gained traction immediately. The diagram below shows the detonation of the informational bomb, planted in advance, by Dagestan Morning at the perfect moment. The call appeared on many sleeper protest channels – online communities that stayed away from discussing public issues until September 24, posting instead Quran quotes and beautiful Dagestanian landscapes.
Most likely, the Telegram channels had been bought in advance to reach the widest possible audience when the time came. Other outlets, which were created just days before the protests, got thousands of subscribers overnight, as major Dagestani channels promoted their ads.
The same chart, however, shows that the media sensation was short-lived. Apparently sensing that something didn’t smell right, people started unsubscribing after September 26.
Ukrainian leader Vladimir Zelensky’s address to protesting Dagestanis didn’t help either. In his typical manner of pompous gravitas, he condescendingly remarked that “they [Dagestanis] were beginning to understand [the situation].” He also promised that those residents of the republic who would take up arms against Ukraine would not make it back alive. On top of that, he urged Russian citizens to break the law.
“Disobey this criminal mobilization. Run away. Or surrender to Ukrainian forces the moment you have a chance. I’m asking all our friends in the media sphere to help disseminate this appeal,” the Ukrainian president added.
When it became clear that stoking unrest wouldn’t work, the administrators of Ukrainian channels inundated social media with fake posts. One of the most notable examples was a counterfeit document on “discontinuing the partial mobilization.” The idea must have been to make people angry about the mobilization, which was still ongoing in spite of the new “law,” yet it did not yield the desired result.
Ukrainian special services have long been trying to destabilize Russian society and undermine the country’s leadership, mostly by targeting ethnic minorities and national republics within the country. The Ukrainian Center for Information and Psychological Operations has tried these tactics in Kabardino-Balkaria, Yakutia, Buryatia, and other regions.
Experts believe there were good reasons for homing in on Dagestan this time. Talking to RT, Dmitry Zhuravlyov, director of the Institute for Regional Issues, said the republic is characterized by a high level of class inequality, and, given the traditional character of local communities, people are well aware of everyone’s sources of income. This makes ordinary citizens even more resentful towards those who cash in on their higher status.
“There’s also the clan system, which you have to take into account, and which is no secret to anyone. These two factors make people anxious. They are scared for their relatives, and, at the same time, they worry that, while their loved ones are sent into the special military operation zone, the son, say, of a local deputy will stay home. Class inequality makes people resist the unknown. Officials don’t relate to people,” theexpert said.
On top of that, some districts of Dagestan have long been a source of trouble. The notorious Babayurt District has been making headlines for over two decades due to ongoing land disputes between local residents and those who moved there from mountainous districts. Controversial Soviet-era economic and national policies led to fighting between ethnic groups and clans over fertile land, which is a scarce resource in Dagestan.
The republic is home to over 40 ethnic groups, which are further subdivided into clans, different religious communities, and identities based on internal migration patterns between districts. The latter phenomenon somewhat resembles immigration in Germany or Israel, where each new wave of newcomers developed its own identity.
All in all, there is fertile soil for stoking conflict, all you need is a good excuse.
What keeps a significant proportion of Dagestanis together is horizontal connections and family and community ties, which is exactly what fueled the latest protests.
Once you have all the ingredients in place, including the poor performance of local officials and military commissariats during the initial stages of the partial mobilization, the subversive work of the Ukrainian Center for Information and Psychological Operations, and the idiosyncratic nature of Dagestan’s traditional society, you end up with civil unrest at an unprecedented scale.
Admittedly, Russian authorities have been faster and more efficient than usual in their response to these extraordinary protests. Russia’s rigid political system has demonstrated a flexibility which was previously unseen, except, perhaps, during the coronavirus crisis.
Zur Askenderov, chairman of the People’s Assembly (the official name of Dagestan’s parliament), announced the creation of mobilization headquarters to handle mobilization-related issues quickly and to calm the public down. The republican government instructed local deputies to go to the cities and districts they represent to assist citizens who were called up for military duty. Additionally, regional hotlines were set up and a web resource was added to handle complaints.
It appears that the period of local turbulence is over, although, going forward, any domestic weakness in Russia will undoubtedly be exploited by the country’s enemies on the outside, to deliver a critical blow to its social equilibrium.
By George Trenin, а Russian journalist and political scientist