When the team of Russian opposition politician Aleksei Navalny attempted to open a representative office in the capital of the North Caucasus republic of Daghestan earlier this month, events unfolded quickly.
News of the plan broke in local media on February 19. Late in the evening of the very next day, a group of unknown assailants accosted Navalny's regional coordinator, Ruslan Ablyakimov, at a local scenic overlook and beat him savagely.
"Then they lifted me up and asked me: 'What are you doing here? Why did you come from Moscow?'" Ablyakimov told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service. "I didn't answer, so they continued beating me. They wanted to throw me down from the overlook but the leader stopped them."
On February 21, Navalny's team announced that the plan to open an office in Daghestan had been put on hold. The landlord who had previously agreed to rent space for the project suddenly backed out. Ablyakimov himself fled the republic for another, undisclosed location in the country, telling the Caucasus Knot website that he had been "followed 24 hours a day."
Although Navalny's team has long touted ambitions to become a truly national movement in opposition to the rule of longtime authoritarian President Vladimir Putin, the movement has made no inroads in the North Caucasus region. Its southernmost office in European Russia is in Krasnodar; its office in Stavropol, which is part of the North Caucasus Federal District, was closed down in August 2020.
People simply don't want to get involved in politics."-- Tatyana Ginberg, former head of Navalny's Stavropol office
In 2017, when Navalny's group significantly expanded its regional network, Navalny himself never traveled farther south than Volgograd. His regional coordinator, Leonid Volkov, cut the ribbons in Stavropol and Krasnodar.
When asked why resistance to Navalny's movement appears so much stronger in the North Caucasus than in most other parts of Russia, his supporters readily supply a list of explanations.
"There are several reasons," says Tatyana Ginberg, the former head of Navalny's Stavropol office. "The population of the North Caucasus is even more strongly dependent on budget-sector salaries and benefits doled out by local bureaucrats than people in other parts of the country. Also, society is more traditional here and activists come under pressure from friends and relatives who don't understand their political views. And the impunity of the security forces is significantly greater here than in other parts of Russia. People simply don't want to get involved in politics. All of this means that there are fewer offices and smaller protests in support of Navalny here."
Russian Nationalism Not Forgotten
But other observers attribute the lack of support more directly to Navalny's refusal to renounce past Russian-nationalist positions.
"Aleksei Navalny has not received broad support in the North Caucasus for the same reasons that the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia or the Rodina party haven't," says Anton Chablin, regional development analyst for the Aktsenty analytical center, mentioning two political parties with strongly Russian-nationalist programs. "The reason is ultranationalism."
In the North Caucasus, people judge not only what a person does, but his personality, his views, and his statements as well."-- Ruslan Mutsolgov, regional head of Yabloko party
Ruslan Mutsolgov, regional head of the liberal Yabloko party in Ingushetia, adds that Navalny's high-profile anti-corruption efforts have failed to reach the North Caucasus, one of Russia's most corrupt regions.
"There are a great number of instances of corruption here, and their scale is truly horrifying," Mutsolgov says. "We can speak about corrupt figures in the Caucasus and their direct connection to the federal center, which is largely responsible for the flourishing of corruption in our region. Maybe the slight attention that Navalny has paid to the problems of the Caucasus and his clearly expressed anti-Caucasus views have undermined his authority and his popularity here."
"After all, in the North Caucasus, people judge not only what a person does, but his personality, his views, and his statements as well," he adds.
Moscow-based political consultant Dmitry Fetisov agrees that Navalny has largely failed to present an attractive agenda for the North Caucasus. Navalny's work exposing corruption in other parts of Russia "is completely irrelevant to the needs and mood of the local population," Fetisov says, adding that locals in the North Caucasus are also fed a steady diet of state-media stories denouncing Navalny as a "U.S. State Department agent."
"We have the unique situation when in the regions of the North Caucasus Federal District the level of corruption is extremely high, but there the image of Navalny as the main opponent of corruption has not gained any traction," he adds. "He has a negative image. The efforts of the local authorities aren't really needed -- local people themselves will pressure his supporters."
People here react very negatively to any perceived slights to their ethnic or religious identities."-- Anton Chablin, Aktsenty analytical center
Grigory Kiselyov, director of the Center for Political Research and Technologies in Krasnodar, agrees that a significant proportion of the public in the region still views Navalny through the prism of his past nationalist pronouncements, seeing him as "a chauvinist and an advocate of a strong imperial power and force-based methods of transforming the Caucasus."
Navalny, he argues, has not done enough to convince people in the region that he has in recent years moved significantly to the left, becoming virtually "a social democrat" who is preoccupied with issues of social justice and loosening the government's grip on the lives of ordinary citizens.
"All of these themes are dear to the people of the Caucasus," Kiselyov adds.
However, as analyst Chablin observes, people in the North Caucasus "react very negatively to any perceived slights to their ethnic or religious identities."
"That is why Navalny's contradictory statements about Muslims and the Caucasus outweigh, in their eyes, his other initiatives or his anti-corruption investigations," Chablin explains.