In a stark illustration of Russia’s governance challenges, the evening of October 29, 2023, witnessed a harrowing incident at Makhachkala airport, as around 2,000 individuals stormed the facility with a targeted focus on passengers arriving from Israel. This distressing event reflects a concerning erosion of governance, with implications for Putin’s model of leadership in Russia. The gravity of the situation deepened as Russian authorities pointed fingers at the West and Ukrainian security services, suggesting external influences in the orchestration of the anti-Jewish protests.
Amid the chaos and subsequent investigations, a critical aspect emerges – the authorities’ apparent oversight of the underlying motivations propelling the crowd’s aggression. The contention is that a crowd of nearly two thousand people would not have spontaneously stormed the airport without a deeply rooted desire to do so. While Putin’s spokesman Peskov attributed the Dagestan events to the external impetus, it is crucial to delve into the profound influence of individuals’ deep-seated beliefs that led to the decision to raid the airport.
Following the chaos at Makhachkala airport, 201 people were detained, emphasizing the state’s response to the security breach. However, a nuanced examination reveals that 155 individuals faced charges for administrative offenses rather than more severe measures. This selective approach to law enforcement raises questions about the effectiveness and consistency of the Russian government’s response, particularly in the face of anti-Jewish sentiments that manifested in violence and damage.
The protesters’ actions caused substantial damage to the airport infrastructure, amounting to approximately 285 million rubles. This significant financial impact underscores the physical toll of the event and highlights the potential consequences of failing governance structures. Moreover, the injuries sustained by 20 individuals, including five policemen, further emphasize the tangible human cost of the unrest. The events at Makhachkala airport serve as a troubling indicator of the challenges facing Putin’s model of governance, particularly in managing incidents rooted in deep-seated beliefs and sentiments. Putin’s model, once seemingly stable, now grapples with the complexities of managing crises that stem from deeply ingrained beliefs, revealing vulnerabilities in the face of shifting societal dynamics.
The pogrom at the airport was not the first, but the most significant case of anti-Semitism in the Caucasus since the beginning of the Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip. The day before the airport storming, raids on hotels in Dagestan took place in search of Israelis. The police not only did not prevent, but also allowed representatives of the aggressive crowd to enter the hotels to check the documents of the guests staying there. On October 28, an anti-Jewish rally was held in the Karachay-Cherkessia region neighboring Dagestan, and on October 29, a synagogue was set on fire in Kabardino-Balkaria.
The local authorities cannot fight such protests with forceful methods, as all security agencies, police, FSB and National Guards, Rosgvardia, are subordinate to Moscow. And the Kremlin was and is in no hurry to quell the anti-Jewish protests. Moreover, on the eve of these anti-Jewish demonstrations, the Kremlin received a delegation from Hamas, as if sending a positive signal of support to the forces of radical Islam.
The Dagestan airport storming reminds of the day of the Prigozhin mutiny. The critical mass in Dagestan had been accumulating for days. And all the officials – both in the regions and in Moscow – simply watched in silence. The “law enforcers” were also inactive, not knowing whether they could intervene or whether these spontaneous “moments of hatred” had been coordinated by their superiors. They only caught on when the people, heated by the weakness of the authorities, stormed the airport and threw stones at police officers. What from the outside may look like an action planned by the Kremlin was in fact increasingly turning out to be an uncontrolled process.
The protest in Dagestan revealed the Kremlin’s main problem: a problem in goal-setting. On the one hand, Moscow is trying to continue the tradition of the USSR by promoting the ideas of multinationality and “traditional values,” which historically include such phenomena as xenophobia and religious intolerance. On the other hand, Russia is now witnessing a return to neo-feudal social relations, which presuppose the possibility of solving issues by force. What is happening in Russia now is a direct consequence of the attempt to reconcile the socialist narrative with the ethics of feudalism
The historical reference to Prigozhin’s mutiny, a rebellion of a feudal lord against a suzerain, draws parallels with the Dagestan events. In both instances, security forces and political entities hesitated to interfere, adhering to what seemed like feudal ethics of non-intervention in apparent conflicts between two parties. The anti-Jewish riots in the Caucasus further underscore the lack of robust institutional mechanisms in Russia. Security agencies, awaiting a clear signal from the Kremlin, only took action when directives were finally provided. This highlights a significant gap in responsiveness and a reliance on top-down decision-making, revealing a fundamental weakness in the governance structure.
The Dagestan events mirror a broader challenge in Russian governance, where a complex interplay of historical narratives, conflicting values, and a lack of institutional efficiency contribute to a volatile and unpredictable socio-political landscape.
The Kremlin has long since lifted the taboo against using xenophobia for populist purposes. The purpose of the Kremlin-backed dogmatization of education and the promotion of radical Islam, which it started a decade ago, was conceived as a way to gain more leverage over people. However, in reality it has led to the fact that in the information age the poorly educated society can be ruled by anyone, not only Moscow.
Both Prigozhin’s mutiny and the Dagestan pogrom are signs of the bankruptcy of Putin’s model of governance. Prigozhin’s mutiny exposed the problem of reluctance of the security services to speak in direct defense of Putin without a clear understanding of their benefits. This points to internal fractures within the security apparatus, indicating a lack of unified loyalty or a shared vision, further contributing to the governance challenges. And the Pogrom in Dagestan is an episode reflecting the bankruptcy of Putin’s model of multinationality, which Putin contrasted with Western multiculturalism. The preference for relying on diasporas and ethnocracies over educated citizens in megacities, a strategy employed by Putin for an extended period, is now being called into question
The bankruptcy of Putin’s governance model, as evidenced by these incidents, raises critical concerns about the sustainability of the regime. The unintended consequences of leveraging xenophobia and relying on specific social structures for political support have created an environment where unrest and challenges to the state’s authority can emerge unpredictably. As Russia grapples with these internal fissures, the need for a recalibration of governance strategies becomes increasingly apparent to navigate the complexities of the modern socio-political landscape.
The events in Dagestan and Karachay-Cherkessia underscore a troubling aspect of the erosion of the state monopoly on violence within Russia. This erosion is vividly exemplified by the existence of private military companies (PMCs) like Wagner, which operated with a level of autonomy that challenges traditional state control. Additionally, instances such as the public lynching orchestrated by Kadyrov’s son, who on September 25, 2023, beat up a man in pre-trial detention accused of burning the Koran and posted the video on the Internet, further showcase the blurred lines between state-sanctioned and extrajudicial use of force. All this is pushing people’s ideas what is possible and permissible.
Dozens of protesters in Dagestan have received sentences under the “rally” article. A total of 54 cases have been submitted to the courts, and 48 people have already been sentenced to arrest for up to 15 days. It is most likely that Moscow will decide to put the case on hold to avoid exacerbating tensions. We should not assume that individual detractors are behind the pogroms: in Kabardino-Balkaria, a petition to stop the construction of a Jewish cultural center (which has already been removed from the website) garnered almost 20,000 electronic signatures in less than a day (the “illiteracy” of the local population cannot be blamed here). The authorities feel the power of the crowd and do not want to provoke it. And this means that riots like those in Makhachkala are unlikely to be the last ones.
The contrasting reactions to the actions of Kadyrov’s son and the Makhachkala airport incident offer a glimpse into the complex dynamics within “Russian Islam” and the selective application of legal and moral standards. The dichotomy between these two events highlights the nuanced approach of the Russian authorities to acts committed “for faith” and the boundaries that delineate acceptable behavior within the context of militant Russian Islam.
Kadyrov’s son’s violation of secular law and public morality by brutally beating a defenseless prisoner on camera “for his faith” presents a clear case of a heinous act that not only violates established legal norms but also challenges the principles of human rights and decency. Despite this, the response from Russian authorities has been notably muted, with Kadyrov’s son even receiving awards from the heads of Russia’s “Muslim” regions. This apparent endorsement by regional leaders suggests a level of tolerance, if not implicit approval, for actions carried out in the name of faith.
On the other hand, the crowd in Makhachkala, driven by religious motivations, broke into the airport, an act that also violates the Russian Criminal Code. However, the response from law enforcement agencies has been more decisive, resulting in the arrest of dozens of individuals, leaving thousands untouched, though. This contrasting reaction implies a selective application of legal consequences based on the target of the actions—beating Russians is seemingly tolerated, while actions against Jews prompt a stringent response.
The erosion of the state monopoly on violence, exemplified by the existence of PMCs and extrajudicial incidents, raises concerns about the traditional boundaries of state control. Putin’s responses to critical events, such as the Makhachkala airport pogrom, not only highlight potential shortcomings in the security apparatus but also offer insights into the president’s narrative-shaping strategies and the challenges he faces in maintaining control and public perception.