Author: Aleksandre Kvakhadze, Research Fellow at Rondeli Foundation
On October 29, anti-Israel riots erupted in Dagestan’s capital, Makhachkala. A group of several thousand enraged individuals stormed the local airport in search of potential passengers from Israel. Although none of the Israeli citizens were harmed, and major incidents were effectively prevented by the local police force, the events garnered significant international attention. The footage of Dagestani protesters waving Palestinian flags captured global media attention, drawing parallels to the ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip.
The riots in Dagestan did not emerge out of a vacuum. Anti-Israeli sentiments and Jewish-related conspiracy theories have long circulated the Caucasus, spanning the Islamist spectrum as well as Russia’s loyalists. However, over the past 30 years, this sentiment has not until now manifested in pogroms or any acts of large-scale violence against the small number of mountainous Jews inhabiting Dagestan.
As urban warfare unfolded in Gaza, North Caucasian social media accounts vocally expressed support for Palestine. The protest events in Dagestan were preceded by a wave of disinformation on social media. One widespread rumor suggested that Israeli refugees were attempting to flee Israel and resettle in the North Caucasus. This misinformation triggered local activists to self-organize and counter the perceived potential influx of ethnic Jewish refugees.
The initial demonstration against the alleged resettlement occurred in Cherkessk, the capital of the Karachaevo-Cherkessia republic, on October 28. Subsequently, an act of arson targeted the Jewish National-Cultural Communal Centre in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria. Concurrently, in the large city of Khasavyurt in Dagestan, a local mob encircled the Flamingo Hotel based on the presence of an individual “who looked like a Jew.” However, it later emerged that there were no Jews present. The culmination of these events resulted in riots in Makhachkala a day later. Notably, the rumors and calls for mobilization were disseminated through various Caucasian anti-Kremlin Telegram channels, including Utro Dagestan. Local law enforcement bodies took measures against these protests, arresting over 100 participants in the airport riots, while organizers of non-violent protests in other republics were persuaded to cease their activities. One of the most stringent responses came from Kadyrov’s administration in Chechnya, which reportedly issued threats to open fire on those attempting to organize similar protests.
There is a set of causes that have contributed to these protest events. First and foremost is Muslim solidarity. The Muslim residents of the North Caucasus perceive the hostilities in Gaza as the oppression of the Palestinian people by Israeli forces. The images of civilian casualties only intensify these sentiments. It is noteworthy that solidarity towards Palestine is almost universally shared in the North Caucasus, including by local authorities. Ramzan Kadyrov, for instance, made several statements condemning the Israeli troops and expressing support for Palestine. Moreover, the North Caucasian republics have undertaken symbolic acts and accommodated a small number of Palestinian refugees.
Another contributing factor is that North Caucasian society is susceptible to the spread of rumors and misinformation. The independent media landscape in the region has been restricted. Since the Russian state media does not always offer sufficient coverage of different political events, locals, particularly youth, seek additional information on the internet. Consequently, large segments of the population rely on social media platforms such as TikTok or Telegram.
Misinformation often goes hand-in-hand with the historical memory of the North Caucasian peoples. Since the establishment of Russian rule in the region, the peoples of the Caucasus have experienced a series of deportations, forced resettlements, and alterations to the ethno-demographic landscape in their ancestral territory. Therefore, rumors about the potential resettlement of Jews, and parallels with the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, may well have triggered ethno-nationalist sentiments and defensive instincts among the North Caucasus population.
And finally, Russia’s policy towards Hamas has prevented preemptive repressive measures by the government. Unlike terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda or ISIS, Hamas has not been included in the list of terrorist organizations by Russian authorities. Moreover, the leaders of Hamas have visited Russia multiple times. Thus, observing the diplomatic relationships between Russia and Hamas, the residents of the North Caucasus do not perceive any illicit aspects to openly supporting this movement.
Challenges for the authorities
The anti-Israeli protests in the North Caucasus sounded an alarm for Russia’s central and regional authorities. The central authorities came to realize that seemingly calm and pacified republics harbor the potential for spontaneous, violent mobilization. Controlling the active Muslim youth in the North Caucasus is becoming increasingly challenging. Similar spontaneous protest events were observed during Putin’s mobilization of male citizens for the war in Ukraine. Moreover, protests in ethnically and religiously diverse regions could potentially foster resentments against the central authorities.
The anti-Israeli protests have also exposed vulnerabilities within the local elites, who find themselves having to navigate between the central authorities and the active Muslim youth. While Kadyrov’s administration retains the ability to preemptively suppress any signs of protest movements through overwhelming force and totalitarian control, the same cannot be said for the other republics. Local elites entrenched in corruption lack moral standing among the population, and alternative political or Islamic voices have effectively been silenced in the republics for almost a decade. This vacuum in the political spectrum creates conditions for spontaneous protest events that could potentially spiral out of control. In addition to domestic issues, the anti-Israeli protests could potentially undermine the relationships between local elites and the central government in the Kremlin. Given that there is a sizable number of ethnic Jews in Russia’s political and business elite, heads of North Caucasian republics cannot afford anti-Israeli sentiments in their regions. Additionally, such events can potentially jeopardize Russian-Israeli relations, especially in the light of Israel’s neutrality in the Russian-Ukrainian war.
Overall, the anti-Israeli demonstrations in the North Caucasus have once again highlighted the volatile nature of the region. Despite the ongoing war with Ukraine and strengthened internal control, the region still possesses the potential for mobilization. Furthermore, it has underscored that the North Caucasian people are an integral part of the global Islamic world, and events occurring in the Middle East reverberate in the region. Finally, despite the controlled media environment and the absence of alternative public voices, social media enables the effective spread of information (or misinformation), potentially becoming a mobilizing force in the region.