Russian President Vladimir Putin called for a high-level meeting of security officials immediately following the recent anti-Israeli riots in Dagestan and elsewhere in the North Caucasus. Putin’s move is one of only a few indications that Moscow is concerned with the unrest (MR7.ru, November 5). Perhaps more notable is what appears to be a major purge of security officials in Dagestan itself and the beginning of major preventative measures among the youth in Russia to prevent any recurrence of such actions across Russia, particularly in the predominantly non-Russian regions. Neither of these actions may be enough to solve the problem, and both may provoke more unrest down the road (Dagpravda.ru, November 7; Rossiyskaya gazeta, November 8).
Moscow is clearly trying to present itself as being on the right side of condemning anti-Semitism. Russian officials have taken this opportunity to exploit these outbursts to tighten control over a long-restive region. In addition, these moves clearly reflect unease in the Kremlin. There is fear that the situation in the North Caucasus and other non-Russian regions is rapidly coming to a boil. Putin’s bargain with regional elites, in which they are given subsidies and some autonomy in exchange for preventing violence, is breaking down due to the Kremlin’s failures and weaknesses. The anti-Semitic, anti-Israeli attacks in the North Caucasus could well be followed by attacks on ethnic Russians and Russia itself, especially as the war in Ukraine grinds on, a war in which North Caucasians and non-Russians have suffered large and disproportionate losses (see EDM, Window on Eurasia, November 1).
Dagestan has long been marked by protests against official actions. The region is the most Muslim and ethnically diverse non-Russian republic in Russia. This past summer, Dagestanis staged demonstrations against the Putin regime’s inability to provide water and air conditioning, blocking highways and demanding that Makhachkala address their needs (Window on Eurasia, August 20, 30).
These protests have grown into something more serious for the Kremlin. The war against Ukraine has left Dagestan deeply divided. Although many of its impoverished people have been willing to fight for Moscow in exchange for high pay, others oppose the war. The region has already lost more men than it did during the entirety of the Soviet Union’s Afghan war. The Dagestanis increasingly suspect Moscow of using non-Russians, especially Muslims like themselves, as “cannon fodder” on the Ukrainian battlefield (see EDM, September 29, 2022; Istories.media, EDM, February 14).
Immediately following the riots on October 28 and 29, Makhachkala followed Moscow’s lead in presenting its explanation of the situation. Dagestani officials declared that outside agitation from Ukraine or the West fomented these events and that Dagestani society was peaceful and not at risk of destabilization, despite evidence to the contrary. They played down the events themselves and initially charged those involved with only administrative violations rather than crimes. This message simultaneously highlighted calls from local activists to the Muslim establishment in Dagestan to treat the protesters leniently and their own desire to minimize the situation.
Moscow initially supported this approach (Kavkaz uzel, November 2). Some smaller protests, however, have continued. Under pressure from Moscow, Makhachkala began arresting more people and charging them with crimes that are likely to lead to serious time behind bars. Even these steps, however, have not been enough to satisfy many commentators. Both Moscow and Makhachkala have changed course and adopted much tougher responses (Kavkaz uzel, November 1, 2 , , 3 , , 4).
More than 200 Dagestanis have been arrested and criminally charged for their roles in the anti-Israeli demonstration at the Makhachkala airport. Two senior siloviki have been dismissed and charged as well. Rumors are spreading that more officials will be purged, including the head of the republic’s Federal Security Service (FSB) branch and Sergey Melikhov, the ethnic Russian head of the regional government (Kommersant, November 7). As often happens with these cases in Russia, the disgraced officials were nominally removed for corruption. The timing of their dismissals, however, suggest that they were ousted because they failed to prevent the riots and then failed to come down on them hard enough to satisfy Moscow (Russki criminal, June 30; Izvestiya, November 5; MK.ru, November 6; Novyye izvestiya, November 7; Regionalnyye kommenyarii, November 8).
Makhachkala announced that it is adopting a new plan to fight extremism among young people in Dagestan (MK.ru, November 6; Vmeste-RF, Rossiyskaya gazeta, November 8). This move suggests that the dismissal of senior officials is only the first step in broader changes to better secure the region. Dagestani officials, almost certainly at Moscow’s behest, organized the All-Russia Forum for Prophylactic Actions Against the Spread of the Ideology of Terrorism and Extremism on November 6. The event attracted 150 people from across the Russian Federation and called on them to take action in the wake of the events in Makhachkala. This is likely an indication that the Kremlin does not view what happened in Dagestan as an isolated case (Dagpravda.ru, November 7).
Such prophylactic measures are designed to prevent a repetition of the events in Makhachkala and any moves that could transform into anti-Russian actions. Similar actions are taking place in several of the other North Caucasian republics, where support for the Palestinians and hostility toward Israel are high. Some regional officials canceled portions of the Russian National Unity Day commemorations on November 4 to avoid these gatherings leading to more protests against Israel and the Jews (Fortanga.org, November 6). In Ingushetia, Russian siloviki began to arrest people who displayed anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic attitudes (T.me/fortangaorg, November 1). Ingush head Mahmoud-Ali Kalimatov announced that the region was adopting a preventative program against extremism, lest related public sentiments grow into violent riots (Fortanga.org, November 2).
Amid growing international conflict, these events reveal important information regarding the Kremlin’s mental state. The official moves from the Putin regime have not attracted the same level of attention as the events at Makhachkala airport and the anti-Semitic, anti-Israeli protests in the North Caucasus. Moscow’s actions may, nevertheless, prove to be at least as important as the events themselves. The Kremlin’s response demonstrates that, all claims to the contrary, Moscow is far more worried about these events than it has let on and is now prepared to respond with increased repression. Russian officials have seemingly decided that these problems are not confined to Dagestan but extend across the non-Russian regions. Putin’s “bargain” of allowing regional elites to take the lead in suppressing dissent has effectively broken down. To regain control, Putin would have to intervene more directly, despite the very real risk that this will stretch Moscow’s coercive resources to a breaking point and potentially exacerbate the already tense situation.