Staunton, April 22 – The proximate cause of the protests in Vladikavkaz this week was less the pandemic or even the economic crisis, analysts say. Instead, the trigger was the decision by the Russian government to mark the end of World War II on September 3, an action Ossetians view as yet another effort to obliterate the memory of the 2004 Beslan tragedy.
For them the Mysli-NeMysli telegram channel says, this was the straw that broke the camels back, opening the way for activists who have already complained about environmental issues to get people into the streets to protest the economic consequences of self-isolation (teletype.in/@mislinemisli/Red_Pogrom reposted at kasparov.ru/material.php?id=5E9FE7AD76228).
That analysis suggests that the protests in Vladikavkaz are likely to remain local because ultimately they are about a local concern, but the telegram channel suggests that the way they emerged means that they could easily present a larger challenge to Moscow, one the regime would likely have to use force to crush.
Vadim Cheldiyev, the opera singer who organized the earlier environmental protest, was behind the current demonstrations, and is now, along with 60 others under arrest, has some curious allies, radicals who have emerged out of retired siloviki who are in denial not only about the coronavirus but about the demise of the USSR.
Such groups have emerged because siloviki officers are allowed to retire early, have good pensions which allow them to focus on “bigger” issues, and buy into conspiracy theories promoted on the Internet. And when they link up with those like Cheldiyev who can provide them with a public face, they can become dangerous.
These retirees, the telegram channel says, “have been doing what all the losers of the world do,” going on line and finding interest communities. They then form what can be called “self-indoctrinating systems” and become ever more radical, often demanding repressive measures against the regime in the name of the people.
Vladikavkaz is not the only place in Russia, Mysli-NeMysli says, where this wins support from the population. But as a result, in many locations, the population appears likely to follow such “red” patriots rather than any “orange” Maidan advocates, the group that the Kremlin has mistakenly focused on.
Two other commentators, Aleksey Malashenko, a Moscow specialist on the North Caucasus, and Ivan Rakovina, a Ukrainian commentator, provide additional instructive details about what happened in North Ossetia and how much of a bellwether the protests there are likely to prove for other parts of the Russian Federation.
Malashenko argues that North Ossetia proved to be “the weak link” in part because of the personal factor. Given the size of the republics there and national cultures, personalities matter more than elsewhere; and the leadership of both the government and the opposition in North Ossetia demonstrates this (caucasustimes.com/ru/aleksej-malashenko-ob-osetinskom-nadryve/).
The Moscow-appointed governor there is weak, and that has opened the way for outsized personalities like Cheldiyev to exercise disproportionate influence. This is a more general problem: the pandemic and economic crisis is reducing the influence of those in office, but more at the local and republic level than at the all-Russian one.
Malashenko makes three additional points. First, he says, the controls the authorities are putting in place will last long after the pandemic, something people recognize. Second, Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov may have good ties with Putin but he is despised by many others in Moscow and thus is in a much weaker position now than many imagine.
And third, the ways in which protests have evolved as evidenced by the events in Vladikavkaz mean that it is not to be excluded that in the North Caucasus at least, those who go into the streets about the pandemic or economic crisis may soon give their anger “an Islamic form.” To avoid that, Moscow must act in the region “more intelligently” than it has.
Yakovin argues that Putin has always acted “very strangely” when it comes to North Ossetia and the Ossetians. Most prominently, he did not come to Beslan after the school storming, and he has done his best to suppress memories of that (nv.ua/opinion/putin-severnyy-kavkaz-chto-proishodit-v-severnoy-osetii-novosti-rossii-50083880.html).
For Ossetians, there is thus no question that the decision to change the date Russia commemorates the end of World War II from September 2 to September 3 is part of this campaign against them and their suffering, the Ukrainian commentator says. This Moscow action was thus “the catalyst” if not the cause of popular anger there.
He too points to the weakness of the local governor and the popular support that Cheldiyev has, an opera singer who seems to have an intuitive understanding of why Ossetians are angry and has learned how to position himself as the leader of their opposition to the Moscow-imposed governor.
The Vladikavkaz meeting brought together three groups of citizens opposed to the current situation: those who want to oppose Cheldiyev’s arrest, those who want to end the restrictions and restart business given their economic travails, and those who want the governor removed and direct elections restored.
The protesters were sufficiently numerous and motivated that the authorities in Vladikavkaz could not count on local OMON forces to suppress them, Rakovina says. Consequently, the governor went out to talk, to win time to allow forces from other republics to be brought in who then moved to arrest many of the participants.
According to the Ukrainian commentator, Putin and his minions have no choice but to use force because they have lost all authority in the republic.