Hello! This week The Bell looks at the possible links between the riot at Dagestan’s airport and a radical Islamist movement. We also highlight the latest twists in the saga of the sanctioned Alfa Group founders, and how Russia’s stats body is returning to its favourite pandemic-era habit: delaying the publication of bad data.
Islamic fundamentalism and the antisemitic airport riot in Dagestan
The recent riot at Makhachkala airport, which involved 1,500 people chanting antisemitic slogans and waving Palestinian flags, continues to be a major topic in Russian-language media eight days on. The Bell has looked into how anonymous Telegram channels orchestrated the events that led to a mob storming the airport in Dagestan, a Muslim-majority region close to Russia’s southern border with Azerbaijan, in search of Jewish and Israeli passengers on a flight from Tel Aviv.
- Immediately after the riot, reports started spreading around the Russian-language internet that the “Utro Dagestan” (Morning Dagestan) Telegram channel coordinated the events. The channel was created on March 30, 2022 by an anonymous account. For many weeks, the channel had no more than 1,500 followers. It adopted a critical stance towards Russia’s federal authorities and its authors continue to express anger over government policies and the war in Ukraine.
- During Russia’s September 2022 mobilization drive, the channel’s audience swelled to 130,000 followers and it became a vehicle for protest in the region. Utro Dagestan called for and organized a public demonstration in Makhachkala on Sep. 25. The channel’s author clearly knew the city well and was able to quickly track the movements of security forces deployed to manage the crowds. As a result, protests continued in both Makhachkala and Khasavyurt for several days, as people blocked roads, chanted anti-war slogans and fought off the police. In the six months after the anti-mobilization protests, the channel lost around half its followers.
- In regional Dagestani chats there were two widely-debated theories as to the identity of the Utro Dagestan admins. Some believed former Russian parliamentarian Ilya Ponomarev, who now lives in Ukraine and is a vocal anti-war critic and activist, was the author. Others spread rumors that the channel is controlled by the security services. Pro-Kremlin media were among those that linked the channel to Ponomarev, including Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova. Ponomarev himself made contradictory statements, describing himself as both an “investor” in the channel, as well as its owner. Ponomarev’s money certainly helped to create a network of regional oppositional Telegram channels, including Utro Dagestan, Fyodor Klimenko, the editor-in-chief of one such channel, said in an interview with Meduza. But by the summer of 2022, Ponomarev stopped paying the salaries of his staff working on these regional channels, who were unhappy with him putting pressure on them regarding content and editorial stances.
- Aside from these two theories, there is a third which has also gained traction. Islamic preacher and Salafi theologian Abu Umar Sasitlinsky may also be connected to Utro Dagestan. Russian authorities have described him as a “recruiter” and fundraiser for ISIS. Investigative outlet The Insider also wrote that there may be two other Salafists among the admins – Arslan Mirzayev and Hasan Gadzhiyev.
- Salafism is a fundamentalist tendency within Islam that advocates sharia law and has inspired several radical movements. Among fundamentalist movements, Salafism is one of the more widespread in Dagestan, and experts believe it could have played a role in recent events. Mountain Jews have lived in Dagestan for hundreds of years — with a huge wave arriving during the 19th century after they left Persia for the Caucasus. Given these factors, there are grounds to consider the role Islamist antisemitism could have played in the riot at the airport. Experts have also pointed towards a trend in the region of depriving Jews of self-determination. In an interview with Meduza, Velvla Chernin of the Institute of Euro-Asian Jewish Studies said: “The rioters shouted: ‘Remember Khaibar!’ This was a seventh-century Arabian state where, according to the Koran, Muslims killed Jews. Moreover, it's no coincidence that graffiti on the walls of a cultural center in the city of Nalchik read ‘Death to the Yahuds.’ It was written in Russian, but instead of the [Russian] word ‘Yevrey’ they wrote ‘Yahud’, using the Arabic word for ‘Jews.’”
Why the world should care:
If Salafists were involved in coordinating the riot, we are looking at a deeper level of antisemitism. Islamist anti-Zionists see Jewish resistance as illegitimate since Jews, like Christians, are only permitted to live under the laws of their conquerors, according to their worldview. As the war continues between Israel and Hamas, it can be assumed that there is nothing preventing fundamentalists inside Russia from launching further riots and carrying out other anti-Jewish acts. It also appears that none of those involved will face serious punishment. Only administrative — not criminal — punishments of fines of short jail sentences (a few days) have been given to the handful of rioters who have had charges pressed against them.
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The latest travails of the Alfa Group owners: Detained in France, forgiven in Russia
The co-owners of Alfa Group, one of Russia’s largest business groups, have been held in disgrace in the West since the invasion of Ukraine — a point of view cemented by them being added to, and not removed from, various sanctions lists. Last year, British police searched properties belonging to the group’s two most high-profile shareholders, Pyotr Aven and Mikhail Fridman, in connection with an investigation into evading sanctions, although no charges followed. Last week, a third co-owner, Alexei Kuzmichev, hit the headlines when French authorities searched the secretive billionaire’s home as part of an investigation into money laundering.
- Kuzmichev became acquainted with Fridman when they studied together at the Moscow Institute of Steel and Alloys in the 1980s. After graduating, Kuzmichev, Fridman and other partners set up their first cooperatives (Soviet-era equivalents of private companies) which delivered groceries, cleaned windows and sold computers. In the 1990s, the old classmates established Alfa-Ekho, a Soviet-Swiss company that evolved into the modern-day Alfa Group consortium that owns Alfa Bank and several other leading Russian companies.
- Kuzmichev was Alfa-Ekho’s main trader. In particular, he traded oil with Cuba and brought sugar to Russia. Later on, he was involved in Alfa’s efforts to send Russian oil to Germany as well as to Cuba, Iran and Nigeria (via the offshore company Crown Resources). Crown Resources was also an agent of the UN’s Oil-for-Food program which helped Iraq purchase food, medication and other humanitarian supplies with the proceeds of its oil sales.
- In 2012, Kuzmichev told the Vedomosti business daily how they had managed to grow the business despite such geopolitical and domestic turmoil. “Anything could have happened, but we had one clear principle: we would not do business with bandits. That was the only way to save the business. As you can see, we all survived and I travel without security,” he recalled. Today he ranks 25th on Forbes list of richest Russians, with an estimated fortune of $6.4 billion.
- After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Kuzmichev was sanctioned. He left Alfa Bank’s board, as well the board of other companies, and sold his 16% stake in the bank to business partner Andrei Kosogov. Throughout this time, Kuzmichev continued living in France, according to Le Monde, which was the first newspaper to report on the searches of the billionaire’s Paris apartment and St. Tropez mansion. Now the co-owner of Alfa Group finds himself accused of tax fraud “with aggravating circumstances” and money laundering. The billionaire was bailed for €8 million ($8.6 million) and placed under judicial restrictions that prevent him from leaving France.
- Coincidence or not, his fellow Alfa Group founders Aven and Fridman also made the news last week. In an interview with Bloomberg they said that investing in Britain had been a mistake. Their LetterOne investment company is still operating in the country, holding shares in a number of large foreign companies, including Turkcell, VEON, DIA and others.
- Fridman is now back in Russia after returning from Israel in early October after the Hamas attack. Asked about his return to Russia, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Fridman coming back was “a normal process. Russian citizens travel around the whole world, but they have just one homeland.” Aven, who has a Latvian passport, still lives in the Baltic state.
Why the world should care:
The Kuzmichev case clearly adds a dash of color to the tales of Russian oligarchs living under foreign sanctions. It’s already clear that disposing of Russian assets is no guarantee of escaping sanctions. Moreover, Kuzmichev’s legal prospects look slim, given that the EU describes him as “one of the most influential people in Russia, with known links to president Putin.” It has also highlighted the Alfa-Endo program set up with Putin’s daughter, Maria Vorontseva. This is even as Kuzmichev, Fridman and their partners featured in the notorious letter from some parts of the Russian opposition, calling for the EU to lift its sanctions on some individuals.
Back to the pandemic — Russian stats body delays bad news publications
Rosstat, Russia’s statistics agency, appears to be reverting to its pandemic-era practice of delaying the publication of statistical reports. Last week, Rosstat withheld the release of its latest socio-economic report which included information on soaring inflation levels across the country, until well into the evening.
- Last week, Rosstat delayed the publication of its Jan–Sep compendium of statistics on the “socio-economic situation in Russia” for three hours, releasing it at 9:00 p.m. Moscow time. The bulletin is a standard release of statistics that Rosstat publishes every month according to a fixed schedule. All previous editions had been released well before then. For instance, the previous edition appeared at 5:59 p.m., and the two before that both came out at 6:50 p.m. The agency’s press service blamed technical issues for the delay, but suspicions have been raised given the content of the reports.
- Among other things, the report confirmed that the latest inflation reading had continued to climb higher, hitting 6.65%. The Central Bank predicts that the pace of price rises at the end of the year will be 7-7.5% and at its last meeting, the regulator pushed its forecast rate upwards for the first time, moving from seeing inflation at 4% — the bank’s official target — to a range of 4-4.5%. Prices continue to rise despite tightening monetary policy, as the bank again raised its base rate, this time to 15% at the end of October, the highest level since May 2022.
- The delay has reminded Rosstat watchers of what happened during the pandemic in 2020, when Russia’s statistical agencies were spotted delaying the release of various statistics — on the economy and demographics — that contained bad news for the government. Back then, Rosstat started publishing data late in the evening in the hopes of avoiding drawing attention to “depressing data,” Reuters reported at the time. Prior to the pandemic, data was regularly published at 4:00 p.m. in Moscow. The late publication meant there was less time for journalists, some of whom receive the statistics under embargo, to analyze the figures and prepare articles, and attention towards the stories would be lower in the evening.
Why the world should care:
As recently as this summer, Vladimir Putin was boasting about inflation being just 2.9% — “lower than many Western countries,” he said. However, as the ruble falls, demand rises and stocks of imported goods dwindle, prices in Russia are increasing sharply towards the end of the year. There are presidential elections just around the corner and although Putin will face no serious competition, the authorities are reluctant to give the Russian population any unattractive data about the state of their country.