Unrest and antisemitism: What the Dagestan airport riot could mean for Russia

Law enforcement at Makhachkala airport during the riot.
Law enforcement at Makhachkala airport during the riot. Copyright "AFP PHOTO / TELEGRAM CHANNEL @ASKRASUL"
By Joshua Askew
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“When you take antisemitism out of the box, it is hard to put it back in," one specialist told Euronews.


Hundreds of men stormed an airport in Dagestan over the weekend, chanting antisemitic slogans and looking for Israelis arriving on a flight from Tel Aviv.

The violent disarray - labelled by some as a “pogrom” - happened in the North Caucasus region, where anger over the conflict in Gaza is running high.

Israel's ambassador to Moscow blamed Sunday night's unrest on extremist elements resulting from ″indoctrination″ in the Muslim-majority Republic of Dagestan. But he said overall there is no antisemitism “on an organised level” in Russia. 

Ambassador Alexander Ben Zvi said around 30 Israeli nationals on board the plane spent the night at a VIP suite at the airport, before being taken by helicopter to another nearby airport to continue their journeys. 

“The North Caucasus are definitely pro-Palestine,” analyst Harold Chambers told Euronews. 

Partly this is down to religious affinity, with people in the region wanting to stand in solidarity with fellow Muslims, but he added there is also a "shared notion of struggle against oppression in some circles."

Dagestan has experienced secessionist unrest during the 20th and 21st centuries, with the Moscow-backed regime accused of "serious human rights violations". Palestinians, meanwhile, say they suffer under brutal Israeli occupation.

While antisemitism was "not necessarily" rife in the North Caucasus, Chambers said a flood of misinformation and emotionally charged online content around the bloodshed in Gaza has made positions much more extreme in recent weeks. 

A baseless claim that Jewish refugees were onboard an arriving plane from Israel helped spark Sunday's riot at Makhachkala airport, while regional Telegram channels have pumped out streams of images of Palestinian children hit by Israeli strikes. 

A headache for Putin

Alongside the Israel-Hamas war, Russia-Israel relations specialist Мilàn Czerny told Euronews the disorder should be put in a regional context. 

Since the start of the Ukraine war in 2022, he said dissent had been building in the North Caucasus. First against the partial mobilisation announced in September and then protests against mounting socio-economic difficulties. 

“Increasingly in Dagestan the economic situation is getting more difficult and there is rising religious radicalisation," he explained. 

“The protest did take place in a vacuum.”

Unrest in Russia's Caucasus region is a worry for Vladimir Putin, who blamed the West and Ukraine for stirring up trouble over social media - something Washington dismissed on Wednesday as "absurd". 

People in the crowd walk shouting antisemitic slogans at an airfield of the airport in Makhachkala, Russia, Monday, Oct. 30, 2023.
People in the crowd walk shouting antisemitic slogans at an airfield of the airport in Makhachkala, Russia, Monday, Oct. 30, 2023.AP/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.

The Russian president previously defeated an Islamist insurgency there and is keen to ensure peace at home ahead of elections next year. 

"This is absolutely not a good sign for Putin’s regime," said Chambers, suggesting images of "uncontrolled public violence", crowds overwhelming police and a major airport being overrun were not good for optics. 

He points to two competing interpretations of the disarray. One that it reflects a failure by a perhaps more sympathetic security service, which appeared to take a lax approach to protestors. The other is that, possibly hollowed out by the Ukraine war, they could not effectively control the mob. 

While cautioning against thinking the Russian Federation was going to "break up", Czerny echoed this second argument, saying the riot showed the "capacity of the Russian state was diminishing and it is, to some extent, losing control."


“Many lines that could not have been crossed before are now being crossed in Russia.”

Russia announced earlier this week it was tightening security in the region, with Chechnya's strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov saying rioters would be shot dead if they failed to heed warnings. 

Trouble ahead for Russia's dwindling Jewish community

Beyond the region, concerns about antisemitism in Russia are rising. 

As the Ukraine war grinds on, Czerny said Moscow is driving up intolerance towards Jewish people and Russia's other religious and ethnic minorities amid efforts to boost nationalism and deflect attention from the invasion's grim economic fallout

"Rather than a distinct anti-Semitic campaign, it is part of the Kremlin's discourse. Socio-economic conditions in Russia are tough right now, so they need people to blame. They blame the US. They blame NATO. But people get tired of it. They are sick of hearing the same thing... so they [the Russian state] need to find someone else to blame."


Russia's foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in May 2022 compared Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy to Adolf Hitler, who he said “also had Jewish blood.”

State television in Russia has also accused prominent Ukrainian politicians of being secretly Jewish, while Russian-backed leaders in Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions have claimed Jews were behind Ukarine's 2014 Maidan revolution that toppled pro-Russia leader Viktor Yanukovych. 

“What we are seeing in the last year and a half of crisis is Russia returning to one of most historical patterns - antisemitism," added Czerny.

Antisemitism was a significant issue during the Soviet Union, especially under Stalin and later Brezhnev, with Jews facing institutional and societal racism.

Ex Russian president Dmitry Medvedev receives a book during his visit at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray in Jerusalem's Old City, Nov. 10, 2016.
Ex Russian president Dmitry Medvedev receives a book during his visit at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray in Jerusalem's Old City, Nov. 10, 2016.Dan Balilty/Copyright 2016 The AP. All rights reserved.

Some 165,000 Jews lived in Russia in 2019, making them the sixth-largest Jewish community outside of Israel at the time, according to the Berman Jewish Data Bank.


However, in August, the Jewish Agency said 20,500 had fled the country, with the spectre of historical persecution likely looming large. 

Czerny added that many of Russia’s Jews tend to be more critical of the invasion, "buying less into Putin's narrative". 

In Dagestan itself, most Jews left during the vicious wars of the 1990s as the restive North Caucasus tried to break away from Russia.

For those that remain inside the country, Czerny said "when Jews see this pogrom happening and the lack of state response they feel fearful." 

"It's scary."   


But it wasn't always this way. Studies show that, under Putin, antisemitism decreased over the last two decades in Russia, following a surge in the 1990s.

In a Levada Center poll, for instance, 45% of Russians said they had a positive attitude toward Jews in 2021, up from 22% in 2010. 

With the airport riot highlighting that things can easily get out of control, Czerny suggested the state may ease up on its antisemitism, though it also may not.

However, he warned: “When you take antisemitism out of the box, it is harder to put it back in. As the nationalistic element gets stronger in Russia, people feel emboldened by the state’s anti-Semitic statements.

“It can only grow from now.”

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