Taking the fight to Dagestan Alexey Navalny’s national movement says it’s opening an office in Makhachkala. Immediately after the announcement, a group of men attacked the team’s local coordinator.
The reason Alexey Navalny’s nationwide political movement has struggled to mobilize in Russia’s North Caucasus became immediately clear on February 19, when local campaign manager Ruslan Ablyakimov was jumped in a suburb outside Makhachkala, hours after “Team Navalny” announced that it will soon open an office in Dagestan. The attack was hardly surprising; Ablyakimov says he was being followed beforehand and anticipated something like this. In an interview with journalist Vladimir Sevrinovsky for Meduza, Ablyakimov explained the risks of political activism in the region, the goals of Navalny’s campaign office in Dagestan, and his own personal feelings about Navalny himself.
“Why’d you come here? You’re from Moscow, right? What are you doing here?” This is what the six or seven men who attacked Ruslan Ablyakimov on February 19 asked him, as they surrounded and kicked him. “You’ve got until tomorrow to get out of here,” they added, after deciding not to “throw him down a mountain,” as some in the group had wanted.
Even after releasing Ablyakimov and his two friends, the men followed them for several blocks. Eventually, he was able to get in touch with local journalist Svetlana Anokhina. The two later went together to the emergency room, where a doctor examined Ablyakimov and they finally called the police. The officers dutifully recorded the attack and even visited the scene of the crime, photographing the area for evidence, but the police assured him (however unconvincingly) that the attack wasn’t politically motivated. The officers also held Ablyakimov for questioning until six in the morning, fielding phone calls from Moscow that apparently complicated the situation.
While the Dagestani police doubt the political motives behind the attack, Ablyakimov himself has been involved in political activism since at least 2014, when he joined Ilya Novikov’s campaign in Kazan, working with opposition groups like Yabloko and Boris Nemtsov’s PARNAS. The next year, following Nemtsov’s assassination, Ablyakimov joined a “democratic coalition” that united PARNAS, Demvybor, and the Libertarian Party, helping with a few regional campaigns.
In Novosibirsk, he got some firsthand experience with one of Russian election officials’ favorite disqualification tactics: invalidating a critical number of collected signatures needed to register a candidate for the ballot. To protest, he joined a hunger strike against the election board’s actions. Though the effort proved fruitless, it was formative for Ablyakimov, who recalled to Meduza: “They even took me away in an ambulance.”
While campaigning in Novosibirsk that year, Ablyakimov also met Alexey Navalny for the first time. He still has the selfie to prove it. In 2016, immediately after receiving his bachelor’s degree in philosophy, Ablyakimov boarded a train in Kazan and moved to Moscow, where he joined Nikolai Lyaskin’s State Duma campaign.
Though he’s now a professional political activist, Ablyakimov says he would have gladly pursued another career and fondly remembers an earlier job at a “tourism startup.” “But we live in a time when doing grassroots political activism, not politics per se, is a pretty honorable thing,” he told Meduza. “If you’re not interested in politics, it’s not that it’s very bad so much as it’s sad.”
Ablyakimov describes himself as a Navalny supporter and says he expects Navalny to “replace Vladimir Putin at some point.” He attributes this apparent destiny mainly to chance, explaining that other circumstances could have put anyone in Navalny’s shoes, “but it turned out that we have Navalny.” At the same time, Ablyakimov says he can imagine a democratic future where he joins the opposition against Navalny. “I admit that there are some areas where I disagree with Navalny and we won’t see eye to eye,” he told Meduza.
Critics still regularly malign Alexey Navalny for his earlier nationalist rhetoric (which he never renounced) and for supporting efforts like “Enough Feeding the Caucasus” — a movement he endorsed about a decade ago that advocated ending federal subsidies to “authoritarian and criminal” leaders in Russia’s North Caucasus, particularly in Chechnya.
Ablyakimov told Meduza that Navalny’s nationalist rhetoric may have been a liability in the North Caucasus a few years ago, but he’s convinced that attitudes have shifted since then. Ablyakimov also insists that “Enough Feeding the Caucasus” was not a bigoted campaign: “They were just saying that we should stop wildly supplying money to the local clans and elites who do nothing good for the region and are only taking advantage of their position and stealing this money.”
Work to be done in Dagestan
Coming to Dagestan to set up a Navalny campaign office isn’t Ablyakimov’s first foray into the region. In March 2018, he helped send roughly 300 election monitors to Russia’s North Caucasus to observe voting in Russia’s presidential election. Most monitors went to Chechnya, where voting irregularities are common and room for civic disobedience is notoriously small. Ablyakimov says Navalny’s team dispatched relatively few people to Dagestan because there’s actually “a very cool local observation movement” already thriving in the republic. He credits the election monitoring initiative with “debunking” claims about full turnout and total support for Putin and United Russia in Grozny, where Navalny’s observers recorded turnout closer to 30 percent.
Trying to open shop in Dagestan, Ablyakimov acknowledges that there’s already a thriving local civil society. These “strong horizontal ties” mean that information, like the kind Navalny’s researchers typically unearth, spreads fast and gains publicity quickly. The North Caucasus isn’t even unique for police brutality, he says, given recent reports of torture in Moscow’s detention centers. But these outrages generally fail to generate the same attention nationally when they happen in Chechnya or Dagestan, and Ablyakimov wants to help, perhaps at the cost of his own freedom, he says.
When asked about the Navalny movement’s goals in Makhachkala, Ablyakimov describes misperceptions about the region as one of Dagestan’s biggest problems. “The average Russian thinks of it as just brick factories, neverending counter-terrorism operations and kidnappings, and a place where girls are forced into surgeries that traumatize their women’s health,” he told Meduza, apparently referring to clitorectomies, which are still common in Dagestan. “The system of checks and balances is pretty cool — it’s impressive and interesting,” he said, describing the “patchwork quilt” of Dagestan’s different ethnicities, religious groups, and ideological trends. “There’s a lot to work with here.”
After the attack on February 19 and a previous encounter with a man he suspects is a police officer assigned to follow him, Ablyakimov says he abandoned a plan to lie low until he could get Navalny’s local office up and running. Thanks to apparent police interventions, landlords in the area seem to know why he’s in town, obviating any need for secrecy. Ablyakimov says he came close to signing a lease with one property owner for a workspace to host Navalny’s local office, but the deal was called off “after people visited this person.”
Ablyakimov says he now fears for his own safety. “There are obvious reasons to believe that something else bad could happen to me,” he told Meduza, explaining that he needs to “regroup” and “think about what to do next.”
Summary by Kevin Rothrock