Putin and Dagestan: How Putin’s Beloved Region Let Him Down
November 6, 2023
  • Oleg Kashin

    Journalist and writer, runs channels on YouTube and Telegram (here and here)

Journalist Oleg Kashin recalls the important events that link Vladimir Putin and Dagestan. The outbreak of anti-Israel violence in the region, he argues, came as an unpleasant surprise to the Kremlin and put on display its inability to deal with challenges that are outside the box.
Billboard in Makhachkala with the Putin quote: "Seeing how they defend their land and Russia, I fell in love with Dagestan and the Dagestanis even more."
Source: Varlamov.ru
“Seeing how they defend their land and Russia, I fell in love with Dagestan and the Dagestanis even more,” a billboard with this quote by Vladimir Putin was put up on the central square of Makhachkala two decades ago. Behind the boilerplate rhetoric, however, there is something more here – Dagestan truly occupies a special place in the political geography (and biography) of Vladimir Putin.

Geography and biography

It was a crisis in Dagestan that launched Putin’s rapid rise to power in 1999. The region, which neighbors the separatist-minded Chechnya, unexpectedly emerged as a battleground. The Second Chechen War started with federal troops fighting Chechen detachments on the territory of Dagestan, while President Boris Yeltsin’s first personnel decision of the war was to sack Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, who had repeatedly stated that there was no grounds for a new war, and to replace him the then-little-known FSB chief Vladimir Putin.

It was the first months of the war, accompanied by acts of terrorism in Russian cities, including Moscow, that would make Putin Russia’s most popular politician, paving the way to a presidency that continues to this day. Official biographies of Putin often mention his first trip to the front, when in the Dagestan mountains he was supposed to make a toast at a table that had been set for him but refused, saying that he would drink only after victory.

Putin seems to have felt safe on that trip. Chechen radicals had failed to create a united front with their Dagestani neighbors, and in the first battles, even before the arrival of the Russian army, the Chechens were fought off by armed locals – the role of the Dagestani militia in the war was mythologized by what was then the official media. Still, regardless of how big the contribution of the pro-Russia Dagestanis was, there is no reason to doubt that Vladimir Putin himself believes in their loyalty and has given Dagestan special attention for years.
The most multinational region in multinational Russia, Dagestan – though it lags behind in terms of socio-economic development – never let Moscow down, providing the Kremlin with sky-high support in elections and droves of soldiers during the Ukraine war mobilization.
Vladimir Putin meets with Khabib Nurmagomedov, right, a Russian MMA fighter who competes in the UFC, after the latter’s victory in Ulyanovsk in October 2018. Source: YouTube
In the pantheon of official Russian heroes is the Dagestani policeman Magomed Nurbagandov, who was executed by Islamists when he refused to publicly call on other police officers to quit and join the underground. Indeed, Nurbagandov instructed the police to “keep working, brothers,” his last words becoming one of the official slogans of the Russian siloviki.

The Dagestani MMA fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov is also famous and revered in Putin’s Russia. Putin met with him several times, and both have spoken of each other with admiration.

Finally, this summer, after managing to stop Yevgeny Prigozhin’s “march for justice,” Vladimir Putin desperately needed to demonstrate unity with the people. He went to nowhere else but Dagestan, where he met crowds of local residents on the streets. When a little Dagestan girl complained to reporters that she could not see the Russian leader, he invited her to Moscow, received her in the Kremlin and even called the minister of finance in front of her to have a tranche in the billions of rubles allocated to Dagestan from the federal budget.

Even if Putin is an anti-Semite, he is not that big of an anti-Semite

If we are to believe that Vladimir Putin is a latent anti-Semite (as evidenced by his recent obsessive desire to bring up Jews in almost every conversation) or even the secret mastermind of the Hamas attack on Israel (this conspiracy theory is quite popular), then the anti-Semitic riots at the Makhachkala Airport and Dagestan hotels where Jews might have been staying look natural – Putin’s favorite region behaving exactly how Putin would want.

Still, no matter how much of a monster Vladimir Putin is, and no matter how ambiguous Russia’s position in the current Middle East conflict is, it is hard to imagine that the Makhachkala pogrom was inspired by the Kremlin.
Vladimir Putin has repeatedly demonstrated his seemingly rather sincere and genuine fear of any mass disorder, be it opposition rallies or gatherings of soccer fans in the center of Moscow.
He considers even “symbolic” violence against the police truly unacceptable (and the Makhachkala pogromists attacked the police for real), as evidenced by the repressive measures taken against the alleged perpetrators.

The confusion of officials and the media on the evening of the Makhachkala pogrom, as well as the subsequent crisis management, which out of habit attributed all the disorder to provocateurs from Ukraine (supported, as Putin himself clarified, by the US), suggests that what happened came as an unpleasant surprise for Moscow. The Kremlin prefers to ignore the problems in Dagestan, which Putin may indeed love, but where life is far from perfect. The people are poor, the economy is weak and the government is ineffective (which, among other things, was demonstrated by the pandemic, which hit Dagestan harder than other regions).
An official iftar, the fast-breaking evening meal of Muslims during Ramadan, in Dagestan, April 2022. In the first row, second from left is Dagestan head Sergei Melikov. Source: X
Unlike Chechnya, where Vladimir Putin was lucky enough to find a totalitarian bulwark in dictator Ramzan Kadyrov, Dagestan, during the years of Putin’s rule, has gone through six regional leaders, each of them resigning in failure. A similar fate likely awaits the current head of the republic, Sergei Melikov, a Rosgvardiya man dispatched to Dagestan to ensure a police order there; however, as we see, he failed.

Global context of the Makhachkala pogrom

No matter how specific the political atmosphere in Putin’s Russia may be, it should not be viewed as some abstract dictatorship that exists in a vacuum. Putin has done a lot to take Russia out of the global political, economic and cultural context, but banning agricultural imports or, say, Halloween is much easier than isolating the Muslims of Dagestan from global Islam. After October 7, many voices in Arabic, Turkish and Russian spelled out that Israel and Jews are the source of all evil and that one cannot shy away from the global battle against this enemy.

Vladimir Putin is used to seeing the Dagestanis as his loyal subjects and, probably, simply did not believe that no matter how many of his words of appreciation were reproduced on billboards, the pro-Palestine protesters in Paris and London would always be closer to Makhachkala than the colonial (the word is entirely appropriate here) administration appointed from Moscow.

Accustomed to treating foreign countries as the source of intellectual threats affecting young people – LGBT culture, discussions about World War II and even freedom of the press and elections –
“Vladimir Putin and his state clearly did not expect that a trend to hunt down Jews while shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ could also come from abroad.”
Islamic radicalism and outbursts of anti-Semitism today, against the backdrop of the war in Gaza, are truly a global – including Western – problem, and one can hope that humanity will be able to solve it and find a way out of the current crisis. However, no one associates Putin’s Russia in its current state with humanity, and definitely not with the West. Its claims to be an alternative to Western hegemony or to leadership in the “global south” have in practice meant isolationism the likes of which have not been seen in a century. Thus, when a Hamas delegation comes to Russia today, it does not look like a diplomatic victory, but rather like a judgement – it seems that only Hamas is ready to see Russia as a global player and partner (besides the Taliban, who have also been frequent guests in Moscow for some time now).
The Dagestan crisis is paradoxical precisely because Russia, faced with a global problem, only has at its disposal the tools left over from and designed for isolating itself from the West,
and these tools are well-known – repression, propaganda and money, nothing else.

It remains to be seen what Putin will choose – throw the pogromists in prison with long sentences (at this stage they are accused only of “hooliganism”) or give Dagestan another billion for some “patriotic” educational programs – but in any case, the events in Makhachkala have already put on display the inability of the Russian state system to deal with challenges that are outside the box.

Considering that just four months ago was the Prigozhin rebellion – another failed stress test for the system – we should recognize that the elements of the system that seem quintessential turn out to be its weakest points, and the number of pillars of the Putin state that the Kremlin can confidently count on for support is dwindling.
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