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Anti-Israel airport mob highlights rising ethnic tensions in Russia

People shouting antisemitic slogans at an airfield of the airport in Makhachkala, Russia, on Oct. 30, 2023.


Moscow is coming under increasing pressure to protect the country’s Jewish community after the latest episode of antisemitism highlighted growing interethnic tensions in Russia.

An angry anti-Israel mob stormed an airport in the Russian republic of Dagestan on Sunday, reportedly looking for passengers that arrived on a flight from Tel Aviv. Russian media reported that at least several hundred pro-Palestinian “protesters” stormed the airport terminal and runway in the Muslim-majority republic because of their opposition to the war between Israel and Hamas.

Some of the group shouted antisemitic slogans, reports and social media footage suggested, while others waved Palestinian flags and shouted “Allahu Akbar,” (“God is the greatest” in Arabic). A plane from Tel Aviv was surrounded, with passengers forced to hand over their passports for their nationality to be checked.

Russian media reported Monday that over 150 active participants in the riot at Makhachkala airport had been identified and 60 of them detained. The airport is due to reopen Tuesday.

The incident has put divisions in Russia’s ethnically and religiously diverse population in the spotlight, with tensions rising between Russia’s rapidly declining Jewish community (both in terms of practicing and ethnically Jewish people) and its Muslim populace, with Islam being the second-largest religion in Russia, after Orthodox Christianity.

Dagestan is in Russia’s North Caucasus region and is a republic within the Russian Federation. It has a mainly Muslim population of around 3.1 million people. Other republics such as Chechnya, Tatarstan and Ingushetia also have large Muslim-majority populations. The Jewish community, meanwhile, has declined in terms of numbers in recent years and stands at around 82,000, the most recent census in 2021 showed, having declined from around 156,000 in 2010.

Just days ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin lauded the country as a seat of religious tolerance, telling faith leaders that “interethnic and interfaith accord is the foundation of the Russian state.”

Putin also blamed unnamed countries for trying to tie religious and ethnic conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere “directly or indirectly with Russia,” saying “they will resort to lies and provocations, and use outside and internal pretexts to weaken and split our society, and provoke ethnic and religious strife in our home.”

Challenge for the Kremlin

The Kremlin and Russia’s Foreign Ministry alternately blamed the West, and Ukraine, for the unrest in Dagestan, with Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov saying Monday that the West wanted to “split Russian society.” He did not provide evidence to back up Moscow’s claim. CNBC has asked for further comment and is awaiting a reply.

Analysts at the Institute for the Study of War said Sunday that ongoing antisemitic demonstrations in the Republic of Dagestan and elsewhere in the North Caucasus are only serving to highlight “heightened interethnic and interreligious tensions in Russia.”

They added that the Kremlin is likely to “struggle to reassure constituencies that the situation is under control and convince Jewish audiences that Jewish minorities are safe in Russia despite its efforts to present Russia as a religiously tolerant country.”

While the Kremlin was likely to try to present Russia as a place that protects its religious minorities in order “to curry favor with Muslim and Jewish audiences against the backdrop of the Israeli-Hamas war,” the ISW said, it has been “typically slow to respond to events highlighting ethnoreligious tensions” in the past.

A Tupolev Tu-134B passenger plane is seen on the postament next to a sign reading as ‘Dagestan’ outside the airport in Makhachkala on October 30, 2023. Russian police on October 30, 2023 said they had arrested 60 people suspected of storming an airport in the Muslim-majority Caucasus republic of Dagestan, seeking to attack Jewish passengers coming from Israel. (Photo by STRINGER / AFP) (Photo by STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images)

Stringer | Afp | Getty Images

Israel urged Moscow to protect Jewish people after the Dagestan airport incident, issuing a statement in which it said it “views with utmost gravity attempts to harm Israeli citizens and Jews anywhere.”

“Israel expects the Russian legal authorities to safeguard the well-being of all Israeli citizens and Jews wherever they are and to take strong action against the rioters and against the wild incitement being directed against Jews and Israelis,” it said in a statement issued on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Alexander Boroda, the president of Russia’s Federation of Jewish Communities, called for a harsh response from Russia, saying in a statement that the riot had “undermined the basic foundations of our multi-cultural and multi-national state,” Reuters reported Monday.

“Moreover, we see that local authorities were not prepared for such incidents and allowed large-scale violations of law and order and mass demonstrations with open threats to Jews and Israelis,” Boroda said.

“I call on the country’s leadership and law enforcement agencies to find and punish all the organisers and participants of these anti-Semitic actions in the strictest possible manner.”

Russia’s Jewish population

The incident in Dagestan highlights wider demographic tensions in Russia, whose population of 144 million is diverse and disparate in terms of ethnicity, religion, culture and language.

Putin has had to tread a fine line between competing ethnic and religious groups in the country, and there have been shifting dynamics between such groups during his 23 years in power.

In the last 30 years, for example, Russia has gone from fighting two wars against an independence movement in Muslim-majority Chechnya to co-opting the republic firmly into its orbit in recent years, with Chechen fighters deployed to fight in Ukraine and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov subservient to Putin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin visits the Juma Mosque in Derbent in Russia’s Republic of Dagestan on June 28, 2023.

Gavriil Grigorov | Afp | Getty Images

Putin and his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have also both been accused of fostering antisemitic sentiment in Russia and of making antisemitic jibes, particularly in recent months against Ukraine and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is Jewish.

Nonetheless, as Russia invaded Ukraine it tried to stir patriotic feelings among the Russian population by evoking the nostalgia of Russia’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. It claimed it wanted to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, although its narrative has since largely changed to position its war there as a war against Western hegemony.

The latest episode of antisemitic aggression in Dagestan is likely to be very concerning for Jews living in the region, and wider Russia.

“Dagestan has its own Jewish community, the Mountain Jews, who have lived in the region for thousands of years and are just as indigenous to it as any other Dagestani ethnicity,” Max Hess, fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and author of “Economic War: Ukraine and the Global Conflict Between Russia and the West,” told CNBC Monday.

“If the Kremlin fails to protect them going forward it will mark not only another dark and tragic day in Russian and Jewish history but be further evidence that Putin is no longer as capable of effective governance in light of his Ukrainian mania,” Hess said.

“The pogrom at Makhachkala airport is a deeply worrying sign for Russian Jews and the strength of the rule of law in the country, which Vladimir Putin of course has long claimed to have significantly strengthened but which has faced significant challenges in light of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine and subsequent self-militarisation of society,” he added.

Russia has a long and deep history with antisemitism, Hess noted, saying that there’s been an “open mocking” of Jews by Russian government officials at the highest level — such as Putin and Lavrov, “though they have many close friends in the community.”

CNBC has contacted the Kremlin for further comment and is awaiting a response.

Russian President Vladimir Putin prepares to greet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting on Jan. 23, 2020, in Jerusalem.

Mikhail Svetlov | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Hess believed that as the Kremlin had “turned to a manic war footing … the situation could turn for the worse.”

“The Makhachkala airport pogrom is but one example of this, and not necessarily how it would play out in the rest of Russia — the region is majority Muslim and has seen public faith become a growing tool of governance by local elites in recent years” he said.

Still, he noted that antisemitic incidents had been reported elsewhere in the North Caucasus recently, particularly in Chechnya and the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria.

For his part, Zelenskyy, who has expressed solidarity with Israel in its fight against Hamas, described video footage of the mob at the Makhachkala airport as “appalling.”

“This is not an isolated incident in Makhachkala, but rather part of Russia’s widespread culture of hatred toward other nations, which is propagated by state television, pundits, and authorities,” he said, adding that “for Russian propaganda talking heads on official television, hate rhetoric is routine. Even the most recent Middle East escalation prompted antisemitic statements from Russian ideologists.”

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