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The Israel-Hamas war threatens to destabilise not only regional Arab nations, but also the Russian Federation.
Recent developments in Dagestan – where a mob stormed the airport in Makhachkala in search of Jewish passengers arriving from Israel – clearly suggests that the Kremlin is unlikely to be able to preserve stability in Russia’s Muslim-dominated southern regions.
Prior to the incident on 29 October, an angry mob reportedly raided hotels in Russia’s North Caucasus looking for Jews, after rumours spread that some Israelis had moved there to flee the war. Although throughout the day local Telegram channels in Dagestan called for a pogrom, Russian security forces did nothing to prevent a series of incidents in the region, where Muslims make up 90% of the population.
After hundreds of young men, some carrying Palestinian flags or placards denouncing Israel, staged riots at the airport in Makhachkala, it became clear that the authorities in Dagestan could not control the situation.
Pro-Kremlin propagandists on social networks, but not on federal TV channels, started accusing “foreign powers” of orchestrating the events in the North Caucasus. RT’s chief editor Margarita Simonyan saw mysterious outside influence behind the anti-Jewish campaign in the region, while Komsomolskaya Pravda journalist Alexander Kots suggested that if “brave” Dagestanis want to kill Jews, they should “go to Gaza or Kyiv”.
Sergey Melikov, the head of Dagestan, claims that attempts to destabilise the situation there are being carried out by “Russia’s enemies”. He indirectly accused Ilya Ponomarev – a Ukraine-based former Russian politician who opposes Moscow’s invasion of the country – of coordinating anti-Jewish protests in the North Caucasus through a Telegram channel called ‘Morning Dagestan’.
Although the platform has been affiliated with Ponomarev, the exiled Russian dissident denied such accusations, although he confirmed that he backed anti-mobilisation rallies that took place in Dagestan last September.
As a result, mobilisation in neighbouring Chechnya was cancelled, while Melikov admitted that “a number of mistakes were made in the course of partial mobilization in the constituent entities of Russia”. But in spite of that, Dagestanis continued fighting in Ukraine, suffering significant losses. According to official figures, the total number of residents of Dagestan who died in Ukraine has reached 627.
Although the Kremlin might have attempted to suffocate a potential secessionist movement in Dagestan by sending its radical youth to be ‘neutralised’ in Ukraine, for most Dagestanis, at least at this point, Israel seems to be a bigger enemy than Moscow.
It is no secret that Dagestan’s budget depends on federal subsidies for 72% of its expenditures, which is how the Kremlin buys social stability in the region. Chechnya is even more dependent on the Russian federal budget, but since its leader Ramzan Kadyrov controls the region’s paramilitary organisation, the Akhmat special forces unit (also known as Kadyrovtsy), and has created a personalistic state in Chechnya, the Kremlin does not have much choice but to turn a blind eye to his actions.
Moscow tolerates Kadyrov’s anti-Israeli rhetoric, despite the fact that some very influential Russian oligarchs, such as Mikhail Fridman and German Khan, have taken up Israeli citizenship, and that the Kremlin attempts to preserve relatively good ties with the Jewish state.
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More importantly, after Ramzan Kadyrov announced the formation of a new battalion in Chechnya, named after Sheikh Mansur – a Chechen military commander and Islamic leader who fought against the Russians in the 18th Century – Russian propaganda remained silent.
Thus, the Kremlin is forced to balance the interests of its oligarchs – many of whom are Jews – with what appears to be a strong anti-Jewish sentiment among Russian Muslims, especially in Russia’s so-called ethic republics that have started facing a growing renewed separatists tendencies amid Moscow’s debacle in Ukraine.
Telegram channels have clearly shown that they can blow up the entire North Caucasus region from inside and that, in Dagestan, although it is nominally part of the Russian Federation, Moscow does not have effective control on the ground.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has reportedly allied with the Islamic world against the West, but at home he risks a large-scale destabilisation.
In the coming weeks and months, he may have a hard time protecting ethnic Jews against violent mobs, especially in Russia’s Muslim-dominated republics. The events at the Makhachkala airport are directly related to the Kremlin’s inability to preserve stability. Dagestani top mufti, Sheikh Ahmad Afandi Abdulaev, rather than Melikov, appears to have had the real influence over protestors at the airport, as his call to end the riots prevented further clashes with the police.
The Kremlin, for its part, will undoubtedly continue creating an illusion that the situation in the North Caucasus is under control. But the fact that Russian federal media were silent while the mob in Makhachkala was searching for Jewish passengers, indicates that Putin’s “stabilitocracy” in the region does not really work.
If Russia suffers a defeat in Ukraine, it will undoubtedly have a hard time preserving Dagestan, Chechnya, as well as other ‘ethnic republics’ in its orbit. Meanwhile, Putin will likely have to make more concessions to local leaders, which will additionally weaken the federal government’s positions in the strategically important region.