‘Without prevention, you end up with a fire’ For Kremlin insiders, anti-Semitism in the North Caucasus was a joke — until it wasn’t
The anti-Semitic riot at the Makhachkala airport on Sunday came as a “shock” to the Putin administration and constituted a “total emergency” for the president’s team, Meduza has learned from sources close to the Kremlin and the country’s ruling United Russia party.
According to one person close to the Putin administration, at the beginning of the recent wave of anti-Semitic incidents in the North Caucasus, officials and political strategists who work in the administration sent each other videos of Dagestan residents “looking for Jews.” They shared the clips “just for laughs,” the source explained.
On October 28, residents of the Dagestani city of Khasavyurt gathered at the Flamingo Hotel after a Telegram channel posted rumors suggesting the hotel was “full of Jews.” The same day, people in Cherkessk, the capital of Russia’s Karachay-Cherkess Republic, held an anti-Israel rally, where they demanded that Jews be “expelled” from the region. The following morning, on October 29, unidentified arsonists set fire to an unfinished Jewish cultural center in the town of Nalchik in the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic.
But it wasn’t until Sunday evening, when anti-Semitic rioters broke into the Makhachkala airport, that members of the administration “realized the situation was far from a joke,” one source told Meduza.
The local authorities in Dagestan were quick to blame the unrest on “enemies and Banderites.” The Kremlin announced that Vladimir Putin plans to hold a “major meeting” to address the riots, and his press secretary Dmitry Peskov told journalists that the topics of discussion will include “the West’s attempts to use events in the Middle East to divide Russian society.”
Meduza’s sources said the Putin administration will most likely blame the riots on Ukrainian intelligence services in its official statements. However, a source from the office of the Presidential Envoy to the North Caucasus told Meduza they believe it would be difficult for anyone to organize a gathering as large as the airport riot over an issue that doesn’t directly affect Dagestan — unless someone from the local political establishment was involved. In other words, the source believes that individuals who are dissatisfied with Dagestan Governor Sergey Melikov likely played a role in the unrest.
Melikov comes from a military background; after fighting in the First Chechen War, he became the Presidential Envoy to the North Caucasus before serving as the deputy of Russian National Guard Director Viktor Zolotov. An acquaintance of Melikov told Meduza that Melikov’s approach to governing Dagestan is “actually quite simple”: “Many people in the Caucasus have ties to the Islamic underground, and this needs to be forcefully eliminated. He’s seen enough of war. Plus, he believes in using a firm hand and a vertical structure.” The source said this approach has led to numerous conflicts between Melikov and other influential Dagestanis.
The Kremlin believes that the country’s security forces “overlooked the situation in Dagestan” and did too little to “work with the population on the issue of anti-Semitism,” according to Meduza’s sources. At the same time, a source who is in contact with the Federal Security Service (FSB) and other law enforcement agencies said that the security community believe it was the Kremlin’s failure that led to the unrest. “Interethnic relations is their domain. Prevention is what’s important here — working with influential opinion leaders and curbing the influence of undesirable individuals. If that’s not taken care of, you end up with a fire,” said the source.
At the same time, the source noted that the weekend’s anti-Semitic riots are unsurprising given the numerous protests Dagestan has seen in recent years: “There are social problems — people are unsatisfied with their lives.” In summer 2023, for example, residents of the republic held multiple street protests against power and water outages, and in the fall of 2022, Dagestan was the site of the country’s largest anti-mobilization protests.
Not a single one of the sources Meduza spoke with expects to see major personnel changes in the wake of the anti-Semitic incidents in the North Caucasus. “The war is a contributor — now is not the time for internal disputes,” said one source.
Two sources close to the Kremlin said they’re confident Russia’s leaders will manage to “curb the negative effects” of the airport riot through propaganda. State-run TV networks have already aired segments about how the local authorities competently handled the unrest while also describing the rioters as “protesters with anti-Israel slogans.” “It should be emphasized that anti-Semitism is not what we’re dealing with here. People are specifically unhappy with the actions of the State of Israel,” said a source close to the Putin administration.
Another source acknowledged that the events in the North Caucasus could create rhetorical difficulties for the Kremlin’s political bloc in its preparations for the 2024 presidential elections. According to him, the riots will make it harder for Putin to sell a message about “national harmony” and the “peaceful coexistence” of Russia’s various ethnic groups. At the same time, the sources said they doubt this will be a serious problem for the Kremlin: “[People have even] forgotten about the Wagner revolt. They’ll forget this too.”