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Ponomarev’s monster How a Telegram channel created to tell the truth about the war in Ukraine ended up fomenting anti-Semitic riots in Dagestan
One of the main vectors of misinformation about “refugees from Israel” that led to the anti-Semitic riot at the Makhachkala airport on October 29 was a Telegram channel called Morning Dagestan. The channel was originally launched by former Russian State Duma deputy Ilya Ponomarev, who left Russia in 2014 and is an active supporter of Ukraine in its fight against Moscow’s invasion. Ponomarev announced after the riot that he’s no longer associated with the channel, but the Dagestani authorities, eager to blame the disaster on outside influence, cited the channel by name and claimed it was run by “traitors and Banderites” from Ukraine. To find out what role Ponomarev played in the channel’s creation, whether he’s really cut ties, and who’s behind the anti-Semitic posts, Meduza spoke to Fedor Klimenko, the former head of Ponomarev’s media projects.
Shortly after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, former Russian State Duma deputy Ilya Ponomarev, who became a Ukrainian citizen in 2019, launched a media project called February Morning. The purpose of the initiative, he said at the time, would be to “tell the truth about this awful war” directly to people inside Russia.
In addition to the project’s main YouTube account and Telegram channel, Ponomarev wanted to create a network of Telegram channels to target regions of Russia individually. Most of these, such as Morning Petersburg and Morning Pskov, failed to gain traction. One of the regional channels, however, eventually became even more popular than the main February Morning channel: Morning Dagestan. It was this channel that posted some of the most widely-shared messages warning of “Israeli refugees” in the days leading up to the anti-Semitic riot at Makhachkala airport.
Fedor Klimenko was one of the key figures who helped Ponomarev launch February Morning. He told Meduza that he served as the editor-in-chief of the media project until he resigned from the organization in February 2023 due to disagreements between him and his boss.
According to Klimenko, Ilya Ponomarev hasn’t had control over Morning Dagestan for more than a year now. In late 2022, February Morning administrators began announcing in interviews and social media posts that they had stopped receiving payments for their work months earlier. One employee told journalists that Ponomarev’s decision to take credit for the assassination of Russian pro-war pundit Daria Dugin in August 2022 came as a “shock” to February Morning’s employees and caused sponsors to abandon the project, adding to the ex-lawmaker’s financial difficulties.
Ponomarev has defended his failure to pay his employees by citing technical difficulties and by declaring that anyone who joined his project to “earn money” rather than engaging in “political battle” made a mistake. But according to the employees, they were offered “ordinary jobs” at February Morning and were never told about a “political battle” or “volunteering.” What’s more, the organization is registered as an LLC, not a non-profit, according to the former administrator of the main February Morning Telegram channel.
Someone who knows the territory
The person Ponomarev hired to run the project’s Dagestan channel is a man named Abakar Abakarov. Unlike the administrators of February Morning’s other regional channels, Klimenko told Meduza, Abakarov was “willing to work for the sake of an idea” — in other words, he didn’t stop running the channel when Ponomarev stopped paying him. “He’s a fairly well-known figure in certain circles in the Caucasus, and he clearly has a talent for media,” Klimenko said.
Abakar Abakarov was born in 1976. He grew up in Dagestan and, after attending graduate school in Moscow, returned in 2002 to his home republic, where he opened a charity foundation to help prepare rural students for university. In 2008, he registered to run for head of Dagestan’s Akhvakhsky District, but he dropped out of the race shortly after; he later said he had been bribed to do so by his fellow candidate Ismail Magomedsharipov, who won the election.
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In 2008, Abakarov helped found an organization called the Russian Congress of Caucasus Nations (the group recently made news for its criticism of the Kremlin’s new history textbook, which greatly downplayed the impact of the Stalinist deportations of people from the Caucasus). In 2012, he was appointed chairman of the organization, but the following year, it distanced itself from his idea to hold a rally against Islamophobia in Moscow in response to charges against Murad Musaev, a lawyer accused of bribing witnesses. The Moscow government forbade Abakarov from holding the rally, and the case against Musaev was thrown out in 2015 due to an expired statute of limitations.
In August 2014, Abakarov announced that his friend, journalist Timur Kuashev, had not died from a health condition, as had officially been reported, but had been murdered. “There’s no doubt that this is murder — a premeditated, highly professional murder,” Abakarov said. “He shows signs of poisoning.” In 2021, the international investigative group Bellingcat confirmed Abakarov’s allegation, reporting that Kuashev had been killed by the same unit of FSB agents that was responsible for poisoning Alexey Navalny in 2020.
Several days before Kuashev’s death, he and Abakarov attended a conference dedicated to the conflict between Israel and Palestine. At the event, Kuashev referred to Israel’s occupation of the Gaza Strip as a “genocide of the Palestinian people” and likened it to the “anti-Islamic, anti-Caucasian war artificially fueled in Russia.” At the end of the conference, the participants passed a resolution to “call on global organizations to recognize the Palestinian holocaust in Gaza” and “express support for the organization Hamas.”
According to Abakarov, he decided to leave Russia after “well-known public figures and journalists” who were close to him started “getting killed and imprisoned on trumped-up charges.” He moved to Ukraine around 2016. By the following year, he had opened an international school in Odesa called Khadjibey. In addition to the general education curriculum required in Ukraine, he told journalists, students at Khadjibey studied Islamic law, the rules of reading the Quran, and the life of the Prophet Muhammad.
In 2019, the outlet Strana.ua reported that members of the pan-Islamic political group Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is banned in over a dozen countries, were working in Abakarov’s school. Abakarov confirmed the claim but said that he himself has never belonged to the organization.
In addition to Fedor Klimenko’s story, Meduza found at least two posts on the Internet that link Abakar Abakarov to Morning Dagestan. One appeared on August 30 on a Telegram channel called Multinational, which shares xenophobic and anti-migrant content; among other things, it criticizes Abakarov’s channel for its role in fueling the anti-mobilization protests in Dagestan last year. The other came from a LiveJournal user writing under the name Arkady Krasilshchikov, who referred to Abakarov as “one of the founders of a Salafi madrasa for Caucasians in Istanbul” and criticized him for making anti-Semitic posts on Morning Dagestan.
Abakarov goes rogue
In the summer of 2022, Abakar Abakarov and Ilya Ponomarev had a falling out, according to Fedor Klimenko.
“There were two reasons for this,” he told Meduza. “Firstly, [Abakarov], like the other channel administrators and correspondents, was owed money by [Ponomarev]. Secondly, Abakarov was frustrated with the attempts to regulate what he posted on the channel.”
In June, Abakarov called Klimenko with an ultimatum: if he wasn’t given full ownership over Morning Dagestan, he would announce publicly that Ponomarev owed him money. Ponomarev agreed, and Klimenko transferred control of the channel to Abakarov.
Almost immediately, Abakarov began doing “strange things” with the channel, such as blurring women’s faces in videos, Klimenko said, and Ponomarev’s then-press secretary insisted that the team either publicly disavow the channel’s new owner or find a way to take the channel back. “Ponomarev basically told him, well, we can’t shut down something that’s not ours,” according to Klimenko.
Then, in September 2022, Dagestan became the site of the largest anti-mobilization protests in Russia, which were “coordinated to a significant degree” by Morning Dagestan, according to Klimenko. “After that, Ponomarev began hinting publicly that the protests in Dagestan were ‘also us,’” the former employee said.
Klimenko maintains that neither he nor Ponomarev was previously aware of any anti-Semitic views held by Abakarov. When they first spoke to him about managing the channel, Klimenko told Meduza, he struck them as an “interesting and erudite person” who had a good understanding of Dagestan as well as “extremely anti-Putin and anti-war views” that were consistent with Ponomarev’s own.
On October 30, Telegram announced it had blocked Morning Dagestan for “violating the rules of Telegram, Google, Apple, and the entire civilized world.” The channel had more than 65,000 followers at the time of its removal.
Abridged English-language version by Sam Breazeale
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