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Anti-Semitic Outbursts In North Caucasus Expose Moscow's Perilous Balancing Act On Gaza War

A local man waves a Palestinian flag with a message reading "Daghestan stands by you" during a pro-Palestinian rally at the Makhachkala airport after the arrival of a scheduled flight from Tel Aviv on October 29.
A local man waves a Palestinian flag with a message reading "Daghestan stands by you" during a pro-Palestinian rally at the Makhachkala airport after the arrival of a scheduled flight from Tel Aviv on October 29.

A sudden outburst of sometimes violent anti-Semitic protests in Russia's primarily Muslim North Caucasus region has exposed the domestic perils posed by authoritarian President Vladimir Putin's efforts to make political hay out of the war between Israel and the extremist Palestinian group Hamas.

On October 29, a mob of more than 1,000 people stormed the airport in Makhachkala, capital of the Daghestan region, shouting anti-Semitic epithets and seeking to prevent passengers arriving on a flight from Israel from entering the city. More than 20 people were injured in the rioting, dozens were arrested, and the airport was shut down.

Local authorities urged "residents of the republic not to succumb to the provocations of destructive groups and not to create panic in society."

The airport events were just the most shocking of a spate of anti-Semitic incidents in the volatile North Caucasus in recent days, most of them spurred on by rumors that Jewish refugees were being welcomed in the region.

On October 28, a raucous crowd gathered outside a hotel in the Daghestani city of Khasavyurt after various Telegram channels reported a person "outwardly resembling a citizen of Israel" was staying there. Police defused the tension by allowing representatives into the hotel to see for themselves that no Israeli citizens were present. Later the hotel posted a sign saying Israeli citizens and Jews were not allowed to enter or stay there. A crowd also reportedly sought to search another hotel in Khasavyurt.

The next day, vandals started a fire at the construction site of a Jewish cultural center in Nalchik, the capital of the Kabardino-Balkaria region. Although no one was injured in the attack, the vandals spray-painted the slogan, "Death to Jews" on the wall of the building. An online petition protesting the construction of the Jewish center gathered nearly 20,000 signatures before it was removed for "racism."

In response to the Makhachkala airport rioting, Putin's spokesman announced a meeting with a large group of government, legislative, and security officials in Moscow. The topic of the discussion: "The West's efforts use the events in the Middle East to divide Russian society."

Since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, Moscow has publicly tried to walk a fine line aimed at exploiting the global distraction from the invasion of Ukraine and courting Arab states and the Global South while also seeking not to harm relations with Israel or Russia's key regional ally, Iran, analysts say.

Russia has not clearly condemned Hamas's actions in southern Israel, hosted a Hamas delegation in Moscow last week, and has repeatedly blamed the United States and the West for the conflict. Pro-Kremlin propagandists on state television and on social media have alleged without evidence that Hamas was armed largely by Western military aid stolen by corrupt Ukrainian officials.

"Russia's leaders should be grateful to [Hamas]," wrote Ukrainian political commentator Vitaliy Portnikov in an essay for RFE/RL's Russian Service. "Attention has been distracted from the war in Ukraine, and American congressmen are arguing over whether to combine aid to the two attacked countries into one package. The peace process between Saudi Arabia and Israel is finished. World oil prices have crept upward instead of continuing to fall. The gap between the West and the Global South has widened and will continue to widen as long as the Gaza conflict continues. All this makes it easier for Moscow to conduct the war in Ukraine."

Oleg Stepanov, a former Moscow coordinator for imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, said Putin was putting "his personal political interests above considerations of humanity or morality" and "is looking for his own benefit" in the Israel-Hamas war.

But the airport attack showed that the Kremlin's approach to the Israel-Hamas war comes with substantial "risks and vulnerabilities," for Russia both abroad and at home, Hanna Notte, a Berlin-based analyst with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and an expert on Russian policy in the Middle East, wrote on X, formerly Twitter, on October 30.

"Putin is now reaping what he sowed" after Russia "came down hard on the Palestinian side in the last two weeks," Notte wrote. "In catering to global pro-Palestinian sentiments for its war of narratives ('anti-colonial' fight) with the West, the Russian state has fueled domestic forces that might now become a problem."

'A Nightmare For The Kremlin'

While official Russian diplomacy has sought to maintain a sort of neutral peacemaker role in the Gaza war, Russian state television and pro-Kremlin social media have been largely anti-Israel, creating dangerous pressure in the impoverished North Caucasus, said Serhiy Danylov, deputy director of the Ukrainian Association of Middle East Studies in Kyiv.

"State propaganda has been inflating hatred toward Israel and Israelis," Danylov told Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. "In part, this becomes directed toward Jews generally, including those who live in Russia. The propagandists have made it clear they are on the side of the Palestinians. And not only the Palestinians, but Hamas. And this has heated up the entire North Caucasus, not only Daghestan."

Jews 'Afraid' After 'Attempted Pogrom' In Daghestan
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Danylov said that "social tensions" in the region that have long been left unaddressed by Putin's government and Kremlin-installed local leaders have been mounting and create the potential for outbursts. "Social tension in the North Caucasus is higher than in other regions of Russia," he said. "Competition among clans and ethnic groups is an order of magnitude greater in the North Caucasus. And this isn't about Islam. It is about tensions and problems that are unique to the North Caucasus."

In an October 30 article in The Spectator, Mark Galeotti, an author and analyst of Russian policy, wrote that local leaders in the North Caucasus "have been trying to walk a delicate line" -- seeking to avoid both "alienating local Muslim sentiment" and "doing anything to stir up further interethnic violence."

Now, the Kremlin appears to be taking the recent outbursts seriously, at least on the surface, covering the airport rioting extensively on state television, having Investigative Committee head Aleksandr Bastrykin oversee the case personally, and organizing the top-level meeting with Putin. With Muslims accounting for about 10 percent of Russia's population and being disproportionately represented among Russian troops fighting in Ukraine, Moscow has every reason to be concerned, Galeotti wrote.

"At a time when Russia's armed forces are committed in Ukraine, and the future stability of Chechnya is in doubt given rumors about the poor health of local warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, anything that risks bringing greater turbulence to the region is a nightmare for the Kremlin," he wrote. Kadyrov is the Kremlin-appointed Chechen leader whom Putin has relied upon for 15 years to keep the region that was the site of two post-Soviet separatist wars under control, ignoring evidence of widespread human rights abuses under his rule.

According to the state news agency TASS, police have set up security around synagogues in the region's main cities.

Russian political commentator Andrei Gusia argued that "the situation in Daghestan did not appear overnight" and "the steam should have been allowed to get out."

"They could have held an authorized rally, organized by the authorities," Gusia told RFE/RL's Caucasus.Realities. "Now such a peaceful option is no longer possible. The only solution left is a crackdown."

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL's Caucasus.Realities and Russian Service and Current Time

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