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What was behind the North Caucasus’ antisemitic surge?

Protesters gathered outside the airport in Makhachkala, Daghestan. Photo: Ramazan Rashidov/TASS

As the Israel-Hamas war continues, the North Caucasus has seen a number of violent antisemitic incidents. But while Russia maintains that the West and Ukraine are behind the events, others have suggested that the riots have offered an outlet for pent-up frustrations that cannot be expressed towards the government. 

On 29 October, more than a thousand people stormed Makhachkala airport, ahead of the expected arrival of a flight from Tel Aviv to the Daghestani capital. 

Footage from the scene showed an angry mob breaking into the airport building, chanting antisemitic slogans, and shouting at airport staff. Some stormed the airport’s runways where they climbed on a docked plane, preventing passengers from disembarking for hours, while protesters outside the airport checked cars that were leaving for Jewish people. 

Daghestan’s Health Ministry reported that at least 20 people were injured during the riots, including nine police officers. Ten people received serious injuries, including two who were in an ‘extremely serious condition’.

The flight’s arrival was preceded by a flurry of posts on popular Daghestani Telegram channels, calling for people to gather at the airport to meet ‘the unwanted “guests” ’, and ‘wait for them on the street in [sic] the airport, before they leave, and catch them there’. 

A day earlier, a reported several hundred protesters had gathered outside a hotel in the Daghestani city of Khasavyurt, 70 kilometres northwest of Makhachkala. They were reportedly searching for Jewish people after rumours were circulated on Telegram that the hotel was being used to house Israeli refugees.

In Kabardino-Balkaria’s capital of Nalchik, an attack on a Jewish cultural centre took place on the same day that Makhachkala’s airport was stormed. As yet unidentified people set car tyres on fire before throwing them at the site, setting the building alight, and daubing graffiti calling for ‘Death to the Jews’ on a wall. 

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A petition against the construction of the cultural centre had previously gathered over 20,000 signatures since its launch on 27 October, before being shut down for ‘racism’. According to RFE/RL, the  petition’s creators stated that the centre would give Kabardino-Balkaria’s Jewish diaspora ‘indisputable advantages’ over other religious and cultural groups in ‘promoting their ideology’ in the republic, and also ‘could destabilise life in the region due to the geopolitical situation in the Middle East’.

[Read on OC Media: Daghestani police disperse second pro-Palestine rally in a week]

And in Cherkessk, Karachay-Cherkessia, a reported 500 people gathered in front of a government building on 28 October, to demand that the authorities provide aid to Palestine and prevent the entry of ‘Israeli refugees’ to the republic. 

‘Can you help us? Can you evict them? Don’t let them in’, a woman said to a government official who came out to speak to protesters.

But the cluster of antisemitic incidents, while making headlines, were situated amidst a far more complex tapestry of official and popular positions, and have prompted speculation about the reasons behind them. 

Some have suggested that the eruption of anger is rooted less in pre-existing antisemitism, and instead provided an outlet for long-simmering frustrations in the tightly-controlled republics. Official responses from both Moscow and the North Caucasus republics have meanwhile trodden an uneasy line between expressing support for Palestine, while maintaining that any protests on the same basis are organised by Ukraine or the West. 

‘Shoot protesters in the forehead’

In the North Caucasus, public protest is reliably met with aggressive opposition from the authorities: using tear gas, beating protesters, issuing military summons to the sons of women protesting against war, and arresting them.

Head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov was characteristically brutal regarding the prospect of protests in his republic. 

Having earlier in the month stated that he was ready to send Chechen ‘peacekeepers’ to Palestine, and later organising prayers in support of Palestine in a number of schools, Kadyrov’s attitude swiftly shifted after the outbreak of unrest in a neighbouring republic. 

‘If we have even one person going to unsanctioned riots, detain and imprison him’, said Kadyrov, speaking at a meeting. ‘Or fire three warning shots in the air, and after that, if the person does not comply with the law, fire the fourth shot in their forehead’.

‘They won’t come out anymore. This is my order’, Kadyrov said, in a video published on his Telegram channel. 

Other officials, avoiding such extreme threats, have nonetheless been swift to discredit the protesters. 

Both Moscow and the Muslim North Caucasian republics officially support Palestine: Russian President Vladimir Putin on 10 October stated that Russia supports the creation of a Palestinian state, and both North Caucasian officials and the Coordination Centre for Muslims of the North Caucasus have expressed their support for Palestine. 

However, in response to the prospect of public protest, Putin claimed on 30 October that foreign forces were responsible for the storming of Makhachkala’s airport. 

‘The events in Makhachkala last night were inspired, including through social networks, not least from the territory of Ukraine, by the hands of agents of Western intelligence services’, the Russian president said, while also accusing the United States and other Western countries of inciting the conflict in the Middle East.

The head of Daghestan, Sergei Melikov, repeated the claims, telling journalists that the antisemitic riots at Makhachkala airport had been ‘supervised from abroad by pro-Ukrainian Telegram channels’.

Melikov additionally stated that the Morning Daghestan channel, which frequently expresses opposition to Russian control of the region, was operating out of Ukraine; others public figures have more explicitly referred to its association with Ilya Ponomarev, a former Russian MP who defected to Ukraine in 2016. The channel later posted that it had no connection to Ponomarev or Ukraine, while both Ukrainian and US officials have denied Russian accusations of their countries’ involvement in the recent antisemitic events.

Even amongst those associated with the authorities in the North Caucasus, there has been discord. 

On 1 November, Melikov announced that Marat Batyrkhanov, the head of the archives department of Izberbash, a town 60 kilometres south of Makhachkala, had been fired for his participation in the airport riots, and would ‘never appear in government’ again. 

A video of Batyrkhanov in a car, on his way to Makhachkala airport, was published by the Baza Telegram channel, in which he states that he is going to the airport to ‘send them back to […] Israel’. 

Religious officials have also faced punishment for deviating from official positions. Two well-known Daghestani religious leaders, Muhammad-Rasul Saaduyev and Zainulla Atayev, were dismissed prior to the events at Makhachkala airport, both for issuing statements describing the events in Gaza as ‘jihad’.

‘All employees of the Muftiate were informed of the Mufti’s instructions not to make unauthorised and loud statements that would agitate the Daghestani people, taking into account the Daghestani mentality’, wrote the Muftiate of Daghestan. ‘Despite this, Saaduev […] stated on Friday that “the entire Muslim world considers what is happening in Palestine to be jihad.’

But Bulat Khalilov, an independent researcher from Nalchik and founder of Ored Recordings, believes that the authorities can use pogroms and ‘antisemitic raids’ to their advantage.

He states that such events allow a number of movements to be swiftly incapacitated — authorities crack down on any form of activism, putting civil activists under even more pressure than they already face, setting back decolonial activists fighting against damaging narratives about the North Caucasus, and discrediting those who support Palestine. 

He adds that the North Caucasus has ‘long been successfully demonised’. 

‘The North Caucasus has served for decades to distract attention and consolidate Russian society against the “savages and barbarians from the South” ’, says Khalilov. ‘Those who went out into the streets “to look for Jews” and set fire to the unfinished cultural centre only fueled this propaganda.’ 

‘Spontaneous’ protests

A number of observers have suggested that the emergence of antisemitism, separate from solidarity with Palestine, was relatively unprecedented. 

The first acts of support for Palestine in the North Caucasus were peaceful and appeared to feature no antisemitism: while protesters were reportedly issued military summons after taking part in a small protest in Makhachkala on 17 October, a larger protest in Khasavyurt was dispersed with no arrests just under a week later. 

Videos and reports of the events showed no evidence of explicitly anti-Jewish sentiment, with protesters carrying Palestinian flags and calling out the killing of ‘our Muslim brothers’. 

[Read more: Daghestani police disperse second pro-Palestine rally in a week]

Yulia Oreshina, Director of the Jewish Studies Centre at the Georgian American University in Tbilisi, tells OC Media that antisemitism is ‘quite a rare phenomenon in the North Caucasus and generally not a widespread issue’.

She notes that the Jewish population of the North Caucasus is one of the oldest Jewish diaspora communities in the world. 

‘Of course, several incidents did take place, including the anti-Jewish raids in Daghestan from the site of local Muslims in the 1920s, in the wake of the Civil War’, she says. ‘But we also know of a lot of cases when during World War II, for instance, and during the Nazi occupation of the North Caucasus, the local non-Jewish population helped to hide the Jews in their own homes or help to escape’.

Khalilov similarly states that the ‘xenophobic’ and ‘antisemitic’ protests appeared to have taken place ‘quite spontaneously’. 

‘Various public pages and bloggers posted outright fakes about thousands of Zionists who were allegedly going to the Caucasus’, says Khalilov. ‘They brought people to the idea that a second Palestine would begin here — the Zionists would take away our houses and land, so we need to take matters into our own hands.’.

However, he states that there appear to have been no ‘coordinators’ or centres to the protests. 

Harold Chambers, a political and security analyst focused on the North Caucasus, told OC Media that, while calls to action are relatively common in Daghestani Telegram channels, ‘they do not always elicit a strong response’. 

He suggests that, on this occasion, people reacted strongly for a few reasons. 

‘First, the abundance of horrific photos of children in the aftermath of Israeli airstrikes that are being shared online. They have solidarity with Palestinians and feel like not enough is being done to protect them’, says Chambers. ‘Second, moderate channels for political expression were closed by the authorities, which favours more extreme actors.’

He also adds that the Russian state permits violence by men against those deemed to be ‘other’. 

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Oleg Nikolenko similarly suggested that ‘threats to kill Jews are a consequence of the work of Russian state propaganda, which for decades has cultivated among Russians a feeling of hatred towards other peoples’.

But Bulat Khalilov notes that both Moscow and North Caucasus authorities have increasingly limited the space available for dialogue, leaving people feeling that ‘they will not be listened to’. 

‘In such a situation, it is easy to pressure emotions, and […] people look for an easy answer and a clear goal’, says Khalilov, noting that there is a ‘crisis of state institutions’ in the region. 

‘People in the region know that no one will listen to them and the state will not help. This is good ground for all sorts of conspiracy theories.’

Read in Armenian on CivilNet.