Society

Mobilizing dissent: interpreting the protests in the North Caucasus

September 27, 2022
Adam Lenton
Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science, George Washington University 

Adam Lenton looks at three emerging aspects of the public resistance to the mobilization recently announced by Vladimir Putin: Dagestan as the center of protest activity, the role of women and the mood among the elites.

Protests in the streets of Makhachkala, September 25. Source: Facebook
In the wake of Putin’s announcement of a “partial mobilization” on September 21, several cities and regions of Russia experienced anti-mobilization protests. Whilst this protest wave broadly resembled that which initially followed Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February – with protest activity largely concentrated in the larger urban metropolises of Moscow and St.Petersburg – in recent days the center of gravity appears to have markedly shifted towards the republics in the North Caucasus. Indeed, in his address on September 25, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy specifically highlighted protests in Dagestan as an example of how people in Russia have “begun to fight for their lives.”

Whilst it is too early to tell exactly how these protests might impact the Kremlin’s ability to wage war against Ukraine, it is possible to detect three emerging themes that will be important to follow moving forward.

Dagestan as an emerging center of the region’s protest activity

By far the largest protests in the North Caucasus have taken place in Dagestan, which, according to open-source data compiled by the BBC and Mediazona, has also been hit the hardest in terms of the overall number of war casualties.

The largest protests took place over September 25-26 in Dagestan’s capital, Makhachkala, and Khasavyurt, where 120 protesters were arrested. On Monday, 26 September, a mass brawl occurred between protestors and police. Videos circulated on Telegram channels documenting various instances of police violence, including beatings and use of electric shockers and pepper spray.

Protests also took place outside of cities. In Babayurtovsky District on September 22, residents blocked a highway and protested at the local commissariat (voenkomat), whilst on September 25 in Endirei, a largely Kumyk village in Khasavyurt District, police fired shots in the air in attempts to dispel protestors after some 110 men were called for mobilization (of a population of just under 8000).

With both the largest population in the North Caucasus and having suffered the largest number of casualties in the war, it is perhaps not surprising that Dagestan has emerged at the forefront of the anti-mobilization protests. Yet there are also other factors unique to Dagestan that make it a more potentially volatile region than elsewhere in the region.
Dagestan’s ethnic and linguistic diversity has rendered political power uniquely fragmented among republics in the Russian Federation, which has also allowed for a relatively freer civil society to develop compared to its neighbors."
But this also means that Dagestan may be an outlier when considering the sorts of dynamics that shape Russian citizens’ decisions to protest, and therefore it should caution us from expecting analogous protests to begin to emerge elsewhere.

Nevertheless, protests in Dagestan may impact dynamics more broadly through a couple of pathways. A now classic political science text by Timur Kuran on the East European revolutions of 1989 illustrates the centrality of first-movers – by virtue of revealing their public opposition – in  encouraging otherwise more reticent citizens to follow suit. In extreme cases, this can lead to a rapid snowball effect. Protests can also signal regime vulnerability; political scientists have shown how autocracies expend huge efforts in manipulating public information in order to maintain an image of dominance and competency, which such protests – if sizeable enough – may undermine.
Women in Dagestan come out to protest against mobilization. Source: Facebook
Women central to anti-mobilization protests

As the war continues, women are playing an increasingly active role in anti-war mobilization across Russia, including in the Caucasus. On September 22 in Baksan, a small town of around 40,000 people in Kabardino-Balkaria, several dozen women gathered to protest mobilization. And in the capital, Nalchik, protesters – also mostly women – engaged in heated arguments with the local authorities who had come to talk to the crowd. In one video circulated widely on Telegram channels, a woman is seen shouting at the official to “not send our kids away,” accusing him of being a “PR manager [just] promoting himself.”

Surprisingly, protests extended even to Grozny, the capital of quasi-totalitarian Chechnya, where women gathered on September 21 to protest against the mobilization. According to opposition activist Ibragim Yangulbayev, some 130 women were arrested and interrogated, and their male relatives – if they were not already in Ukraine – were taken and forced to sign up as “volunteers” to fight.

In Dagestan, instances of police violence against women protesting – which were captured on video and circulated widely – have sparked a particularly deep sense of moral outrage. Such information appeared to be both more viewed and more commented on than other protest-relevant information on Telegram channels, even extending to attempts to identify the individual police officers involved. ‘Moral shocks’ can spark widespread unrest, but by their very nature it is hard to predict what these will be. Protest activity and police violence, however, certainly create space for such shocks to occur.

#3 No elite defection, but murmurings of unease

As Marlene Laruelle explains, the apparent consensus around Putin belies a more complex competition taking place between various ideological and elite camps. As of yet, there have been no signs of the sort of elite defection that would seriously threaten the regime, but there have been some signals suggesting a sense of unease among Russia’s regional elites.

Acutely aware of the need to prevent mass protests spiraling out of control, officials have drawn upon a variety of approaches when dealing with the current wave of unrest. On September 25 the Head of Dagestan, Sergei Melikov, admitted that mistakes had been made, declaring the need to address instances where “those who weren’t on the list were mobilized.” Yet the next day his position hardened, claiming that protests in Makhachkala were planned from abroad.

In Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov’s announcement that the republic would not carry out any further mobilization – claiming that Chechnya had already fulfilled over twice its quota – was made in the aftermath of the women’s protest in Grozny. By bringing the topic of regional disparities and inequitable burden-sharing into the public sphere, Kadyrov has given a veneer of legitimacy to those elsewhere with grievances against mobilization in their communities, while making it harder for local elites to fall back on the argument that they are simply implementing the law – as the protests in Nalchik exemplified.
Put simply, people may now expect their governors to follow Kadyrov’s precedent."
Ramzan Kadyrov says there will be no mobilization in Chechnya. Source: Wiki Commons
By firmly entrenching himself into the so-called “party of war” – the radical nationalist ecosystem that has pushed for further escalation – Kadyrov has further cemented his unique position among Russian elites, which has allowed him to make such statements with little chance of rebuke from the Kremlin. Indeed, he openly criticized the recent Moscow-Kyiv prisoner swap, where Putin’s close friend Viktor Medvedchuk was released with another 55 soldiers, whilst 215 Ukrainians – including 100 Azov Battalion members – were released. He then suggested that FSB and other law enforcement officials should be mobilized. Such elite disputes have rarely ventured into the public sphere (though intra-agency antagonisms are known to exist). The very fact that Kadyrov has become more outspoken on such issues suggests that important intra-elite dynamics may be undergoing a period of change.

Finally, it should also be noted that this uneasiness extends to non-political elites, too. Dagestanis expressed their disappointment at local hero and MMA champion Khabib Nurmagomedov’s silence amidst the ongoing protests. With over 33 million followers on Instagram (the most of any Russian citizen) Nurmagomedov is undoubtedly the most influential Dagestani, which arguably raises the stakes of his public commentary. Meanwhile, other figures in the sporting world publicly condemned police violence, such as fellow MMA fighter Vagab Vagabov and Nurmagomedov’s manager, Rivzan Magomedov. The pressure to take sides is intensifying.

Conclusion

The current wave of unrest may, like those in late February and early March, subside as the state and local governors muddle through by offering a mixture of co-optation and repression. But that doesn’t mean that the protests are insignificant altogether.

For one thing, the protests develop an ongoing discussion over the regional, ethnic, and colonial inequities being exacerbated by the war, but in a way which is more firmly rooted in the peoples of the region itself. Whilst in their infancy, the protests also point to an emerging degree of organization and coordination between different republics. And, as Grigory Shvedov, the founder of the news website Caucasian Knot explained in a recent interview with Meduza, what is noteworthy in these protests is not necessarily their size, but in their severity and in people’s willingness to engage in direct action.

Finally, the three trends identified here – the emergence of Dagestan as a central site for protests, the key role of women protesters, and elite concern – each suggest alternative (but not mutually exclusive) pathways through which the current protest mood might develop.
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