The North Caucasus is the most ethnically diverse and restive region of the Russian Federation. Administratively it is organized into seven autonomous republics with varying degrees of ethnic heterogeneity and proneness to violence. Moscow waged two wars against separatist Chechnya in the two decades and eventually succeeded to secure control over the territory by installing and supporting a local strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov, as the ruler of the republic. Self-determination movement, however, acquired Islamist overtones and spread to other republics of the North Caucasus. Following years of a bloody counterinsurgency campaign and injection of funding, Moscow nearly eradicated rebel movement in the region by 2019. It still trails behind in terms of socio-economic development among other Russian regions and the novel coronavirus is exacerbating its existing problems.
The overall statistics of COVID-19 occurrence and related deaths in Russia are highly contentious. With nearly 14,000 officially confirmed COVID-19 and pneumonia cases, the Republic of Dagestan is currently the most badly hit territory in the North Caucasus. The territory also provides a glimpse on what might be going on in the official count of coronavirus deaths in Russia. The republic reported more than 650 deaths (more than 40 of those were medics) by the illness on May 16. Over 7,000 people are in hospitals. Despite the devastating figures, republican authorities pretended that the situation is manageable. Only 29 deaths are officially confirmed as deaths caused by the novel coronavirus. The rest of the deaths are attributed to pneumonia and not included in the official statistics of COVID-19 victims. If the rate of COVID-19 and pneumonia deaths in the entire Russia were the same as in Dagestan, there would be about 34,000 such deaths across the country. The official number for Russia as of May 14 was little over 2,600 deaths.
Some Dagestani municipalities report that they cannot cope with the inflow of new patients anymore. Authorities locked down the second-biggest city in the republic, Khasavyurt (population around 130,000) on May 3. Its main hospital has run out of capacity to receive new patients, as its existing 250 spaces have filled up. Doctors at the Khasavyurt medical facility say they are under extreme duress and cite a lack of recommended medications to treat patients with the novel coronavirus. Some municipalities in Dagestan have started charity campaigns to cope with the crisis. They say that the aid sent by the republican and Russian federal authorities is not sufficient and there is a threat of massive loss of human lives.
Aina Gamzatova, the spouse of Dagestan’s mufti (Muslim religious leader), appealed to the public to help the republic’s hospitals. She, along with her family, was infected with the coronavirus and hospitalized in Makhachkala. Moreover, according to Gamzatova, her husband, mufti Akhmad Abdulayev, was most badly affected by the disease. She stated that hospitals in the Dagestani capital lack vital resources and medical machinery, such as tomographs, ventilators and other equipment.
Interestingly, local sources contend that Dagestani Salafis (adherents of so-called “unofficial Islam”) quickly reacted to the wave of coronavirus infections hitting the region by stopping collective Friday prayer services, while Dagestani Sufis (representatives of “official Islam”) were somewhat slower in suspending collective prayers.
Dagestan’s neighbors appear to be doing better, but their relatively good statistics might be attributed to a better cover-up rather than the actual better pandemic situation. By May 17, Ingushetia reported 35 deaths and nearly 1,500 coronavirus cases. An estimated 9 deaths and about 1,000 cases have been registered in Chechnya. 15 deaths and over 2,000 cases have been reported in North Ossetia. Kabardin-Balkaria registered 7 deaths and nearly 1,800 cases. Karachay-Cherkessia reported 4 deaths and about 650 cases. 8 people died in Adygea and 400 patients were registered. Since Dagestan (population around three million) is the largest republic in the North Caucasus, these smaller territories (Ingushetia, around 0,5 million; Chechnya, 1,5 million; North Ossetia, 0,7 million; Kabardin-Balkaria, 0,9 million; Karachay-Cherkessia, 0,5 million; Adygea 0,5 million) are likely to have lower numbers of deaths and infected. However, such large disparities are hard to explain, unless the statistics were doctored.
Along with the health crisis, the regional economy is also unraveling. Many residents of the North Caucasus have already lost their entire livelihoods, and some have resorted to desperate measures. On April 20, a large protest action took place in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia. Protesters demanded the resignation of the regional governor, the improvement of living conditions, and the release of an opposition leader. Authorities arrested scores of demonstrators but also promised to support the republic’s most vulnerable families.
Next door, the notorious speaker of the Chechen parliament, Magomed Daudov, condemned the father of eight children for asking for help. The man found himself without work due to restrictions imposed in connection with the coronavirus. The official reprimanded the petitioner and told him to sell his car in order to “buy time”.
Instead of helping people to stay at home and avoid contagion, it appears that some republican governments in the North Caucasus have simply allowed residents to go about their business as normal. Regional authorities are stripped of resources to deliver any massive aid, and — unlike Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya — many of the republican leaders actually lack a sufficient local repressive apparatus to subdue brewing protests. So, to avoid a social explosion, other governors in the North Caucasus feign having adopted a self-isolation regime but do not really enforce it. For example, in Dagestan, all markets reportedly continue to function as normal.
The Russian federal government has promised low interest credits for businesses that keep their workforce. However, observers are skeptical that the Kremlin is going to support this sector in any meaningful way. Instead, the authorities appear to be energetically promoting a public relations campaign but with little actual infusion of funds.
Low oil prices have purportedly forced Moscow to conserve resources for a rainy day. Though, many Russian analysts argue that the rainy day has already arrived, and the central government should begin to tap this money in order to help Russian citizens survive the growing crisis. So far at least, the North Caucasus region appears to have been left largely to its own devices, receiving little or no resources from the federal government beyond the pre-crisis subsidies. But if the economic situation persists much longer or continues to worsen, the regional governors could easily find themselves trapped between an indifferent or powerless Moscow and angry local residents. Some of these leaders will, thus, face a difficult choice: either siding with their constituents, suppressing the discontent or resigning.
An earlier version of this article appeared on May 6, 2020 at the website of the Jamestown Foundation