The Makhachkala Airport Protest, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, and Russia: Risk Assessment

Makhachkala airport protest
An image of the international airport of Makhachakala where local citizens protested against a flight coming from Tel Aviv (Credits: Soul Train, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Kavkaz Files ISSN 2975-0474 Volume 19 Issue 4
Author: Giuliano Bifolchi

The Makhachkala Airport protest in the Republic of Dagestan accentuated the impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Muslim umma (community) in the Russian Federation and the Kremlin’s necessity to manage potential tensions coming from the coexistence of different religious groups inside the country.

Since Moscow’s increasing partnership with the Arab-Muslim world, particularly after the beginning of the Ukraine conflict and imposing Western sanctions, Russia needs to demonstrate its support to the Palestinian cause and, simultaneously, avoid disappointment from the Russian Jewish community in a country which has often promoted the government’s ability to create the condition for the peaceful cohabitation of different religious groups.

Makhachkala Airport Protest: Background Information

On October 29th, 2023, several hundred people participated in the protest in the area next to Makhachkala Airport, where a regular flight from Tel Aviv landed. The Dagestani protesters showed their opposition to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Tel Aviv’s military operation on the Gaza Strip.

After the airplane from Tel Aviv landed in Makhachkala at 07.17 pm (local time), a significant group of protesters entered the airport’s international terminal in search of passengers from this flight. Local police intervened to avoid further escalation and violence against the passenger of the Israeli flight.

The Ministry of Health of the Republic of Dagestan reported that the riots at the Makhachkala Airport caused over 20 injured. The head of Dagestan, Sergei Melikov, said that the protesters grossly violated the law and “stuck a knife into the backs of those who gave their lives for the safety of the Motherland.”

Dagestan: Geopolitical Scenario

Dagestan is a Muslim republic in the Russian North Caucasus Federal District. According to the official data, the Dagestani population amounts to over 2,7 million people. 95% of believers are Muslims: 90% of them are Sunnis, 5% are Shiites. 5% of believers are Christians (mostly Orthodox). Mountain Jews profess Judaism, most of whom are now recorded as tatami (1%).

Dagestan has great ethnic diversity, with about 30 ethnic groups and 81 nationalities, most of whom speak either Caucasian, Turkic, or Iranian languages. Largest among those ethnic groups are the Avar, Russian, Dargin, Kumyk, and Lezgin, who together make up the bulk of the population. Therefore, Dagestan is the most multinational republic of the Russian Federation.

Located in a strategic position in the North Caucasus, the Republic of Dagestan overlooks the Caspian Sea and shares its southern border with Azerbaijan. According to government statements, the republic registered a positive economic trend last year despite the Western sanctions.

Thanks to Moscow’s investments in local infrastructural projects and the Makhachkala Sea Trade Port, Dagestan is becoming a logistic hub capable of linking the North Caucasus, hence Russia, with the South Caucasus, the Caspian Sea region, Central Asia and the Middle East.

The current situation of the republic strongly differs from the past when international scholars and journalists described Dagestan the most troublesome area in the North Caucasus because of local militancy and terrorist activities. Indeed, stabilising the republic and avoiding local threats coming from religious radicalisation are among the Kremlin’s top priorities in Dagestan.

Makhachkala Airport protest, the North Caucasus and Islam in Russia:
Risk Analysis

A series of anti-Semitic actions occurred from October 26th to October 29th, 2023 in the regions of the North Caucasus. Apart from the riots at the Makhachkala Airport, other North Caucasian republics registered tensions because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the local population’s support to the people in the Gaza Strip.

In Karachay-Cherkessia and Dagestan, protesters demanded that visitors from Israel not be allowed there; in Kabardino-Balkaria, a Jewish cultural centre under construction burned down, and personal data of rabbis and addresses of synagogues were published on social networks.

Even if the local authorities and Moscow, as leaked from the Russian newspapers and media today, have underlined that the situation in Makhachkala and other North Caucasian republics soon returned to calm and the events only concerned few people, the reality on the ground underlined Muslims’ negative feelings towards Israel and Jewish people.

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed the Russian support for the creation of the Palestinian State, Moscow’s closeness with Palestine reflects the Kremlin’s necessity to manage a multi-confessional state where Islam is the second most-professed religion.

According to official data, Muslims in Russia represent about 12-15% of the total population (unofficial data estimate 20% of the population). In the capital, Moscow, there are four mosques, while in the entire country, the number of mosques is around 8 thousand.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has several times stated Russia is a Muslim country which sits as an Observer State in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, and traditional Islam is an essential part of the country’s spiritual life.

The International Economic Forum “Russia – Islamic World: KazanForum” organised in May 2023 as the launch of the pilot project of the Islamic banking in Russia in February 2023 in Chechnya, Dagestan, Tatarstan, and Bashkortostan underlined the important role that Islam and the Muslim umma play in the Kremlin’s foreign policy and economic strategy.

Although on October 25th, 2023, Putin met the representatives of Russian religious associations, including the president of the Central Spiritual Administration of Russian Muslims Talgat Tadzhuddinov and the Chief Rabbi of Russia Berl Lazar, to discuss the situation in the Middle East and show national unity, the events registered in the North Caucasus, especially in the Makhachkala Airport, created disappointment among the Russian Jewish community.

Considering the current geopolitical scenario related to the Ukraine conflict and Russia’s confrontation with the West, Russian Jews’ discontent might create favourable conditions for foreign agents’ activities and recruitment in Russia.

Indeed, just a few months ago, in May 2023, the Central Intelligence Agency released a video in the Russian language on YouTube and the Dark Web, which invites dissatisfied Russians to provide information to the U.S. Intelligence agency.

On the one hand, Moscow must avoid internal tensions as well as continue supporting the North Caucasus’s activities in promoting the Russian Federation in the Arab-Muslim world.

On the other hand, the Kremlin needs to maintain its relation with Israel, a country which plays a significant role in the Middle East and has a connection with the Russian Jewish community.

In this geopolitical scenario, Dagestan and the entire North Caucasus play a decisive role because the region is a Muslim stronghold which in the past has caused serious troubles to the Russian internal stability because of local militants and terrorist organisations.

In this complex situation, the Russian central authority should also consider the reaction of the ethnic-Russians and Orthodox Russians who might perceive this strong ‘Islamic revival’ in some regions as a threat for their security and national stability, behaviour that in the past boosted Russian Islamophobia and xenophobia, especially toward North Caucasian people.

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