On June 19, UEFA banned Anzhi from hosting Europa League matches in Dagestan for the 2013/2014 season. Beginning this fall, Anzhi will welcome European competition to Saturn Stadium, located just outside of Moscow, rather than its home arena in Makhachkala.
Russian Football News contributors Andy Shenk and John Sager debate UEFA’s stance on football in Russia’s southernmost republic, offering an in-depth look at the issues Dagestan is wrestling with as it seeks to establish itself as a major player in European football.
This article is intended to inform and provoke questions, not further inflame tension surrounding this issue. Andy and John, while in disagreement, respect each other’s perspective and both hope that football in Dagestan, and in Russia as a whole, will continue to develop as rapidly as possible.
Andy Shenk: UEFA has made a mistake in not allowing Europa League matches in Dagestan. Dagestani football fans have eagerly awaited UEFA matches in their home republic since Anzhi first qualified for international competition in 2001. At that time, neighboring Chechnya was nearing the end of a decade-long separatist war and Glasgow Rangers, Anzhi’s first European opponent, requested that the two-leg UEFA Cup tie be reduced to a single match at a neutral venue.
To Anzhi’s dismay, UEFA complied with Rangers’ request, leading to a late September contest in Warsaw. The Scots advanced via a 1-0 win. Anzhi did not reach the European zone again until last spring, when they finished 5th in the Russian league.
The war in Chechnya had ended several years before, but UEFA once again laid a ban on European football in Makhachkala, this time due to security concerns within Dagestan itself.
Indeed, political, economic and religious violence have troubled Dagestan since the break-up of the Soviet Union. In summer 2012, and once again this June, UEFA deemed the risk of violence at a high-profile football match in the republic too high, notwithstanding a much improved situation in Chechnya.
The argument for football in Dagestan is a slippery one. No one can guarantee complete security at any major event. Dagestan is no exception. More troublingly, the annual number of explosions and shoot-outs is certainly greater here than in other parts of Russia and Europe.
Several positive factors, however, are worth taking into consideration and form the foundation for my argument why UEFA should be in Dagestan.
1) Dagestanis have waited for European competition for more than a decade and would do everything they could to make the visitors feel welcome. Hospitality is deeply rooted in Dagestani culture and the UEFA ban is in part so offensive to Anzhi fans because they view themselves as very gracious, generous hosts.
Casual observers may point to the various conflicts between Anzhi supporters and fans from the Moscow and St. Petersburg clubs, but should remember that those differences are tied to internal Russian political and cultural tensions. European guests would be the last group that Anzhi fans would want to involve in that issue. They would, in fact, be overly generous in an attempt to win public opinion in Europe to their side.
2) Dagestan’s security problem can be categorized into three spheres: a) political violence – either vengeance against corrupt officials and brutal police and military personnel or power moves by criminalized political groups; b) economic violence – used by gangs (often with political ties) to intimidate businesses; c) religious violence – directed against elements of Dagestani society that violate Islamic law – alcohol, immodesty, sexual impropriety, etc.
Each of these spheres overlap, but they generally aim to achieve one or several of the following goals: increased power, revenge, and a better Dagestan.
Undoubtedly, Anzhi have made enemies within Dagestan – including some who would like nothing more than for Suleyman Kerimov’s extravagant project to go up in flames. Projects on this scale are bound to have detractors.
Nonetheless, I believe that a UEFA match in Dagestan would face little to no risk of violence from any of these spheres.
First, Anzhi are immensely popular in Dagestan. The club is one of the few institutions in the republic that provides a first-class product at little to no public cost and enhances Dagestan’s reputation around the world.
While violence directed against politicians, policemen and religious taboos is widely decried, many do sympathize with the motives, if not the means.
An attack on Anzhi, however, would be greeted with both disgust and anger, due to Anzhi’s popularity and the negative international publicity that Dagestan would receive as a result. The group responsible for the attack would face an enormous backlash, which would likely wipe out their organization and only unite Dagestanis even more against any future violence. It is true, of course, that fanatics can be found anywhere who would be willing to bomb treasured symbols, regardless of the consequences, but they are no more likely to do so in Dagestan than in Moscow or London.
Second, if someone did wish to create an international scandal, they would find it very difficult to do any harm. Anzhi moved to a new stadium in March, featuring all of the latest security features. It’s situated between Makhachkala and the neighboring city of Kaspiysk. Anzhi Arena is separated from built-up residential, commercial or industrial areas and only 20 km from the airport.
There are also several modern hotels within easy access of the stadium, which do not require driving into downtown Makhachkala or Kaspiysk. The team, in fact, stays at a hotel on the south edge of Makhachkala, then drives 15 km through two small suburban neighborhoods to reach Anzhi Arena on the north edge of Kaspiysk.
To underscore Dagestan’s ability to successfully host international celebrities, as well as big crowds, Anzhi Arena’s official opening on June 1 featured live performances from American musicians Cher and Flo Rida, as well as numerous Russian stars, in front of a 30,000-strong crowd. The party lasted from 8 pm to 3 am and went off without a hitch, not counting a few traffic snafus.
Finally, while security evaluations must guide UEFA in deciding whether or not to allow matches in Dagestan, the socio-political aspect of the decision is important.
In terms of stereotypes, Dagestan faces an uphill battle against Russian media coverage that pays laser-like attention to any violence in the region. Coupled with high unemployment rates and an influx of job-seeking Dagestanis into Moscow and other large Russian cities, the republic is at the forefront of Russia’s cultural debates.
Thus, the UEFA ban is viewed as a victory for anti-Dagestan (and, more generally, anti-North Caucasus) elements within Russia, which would like the blame for Russia’s economic and societal woes to be blamed on this darker-skinned, predominantly Muslim region. Dagestanis are all too aware of the corruption, unemployment rates and insidious violence that mar their homeland’s reputation, but they want a chance to turn things around. UEFA matches in Dagestan would be one important step in that direction.
John Sager: UEFA made the correct decision to prevent European games from being played in Dagestan. While I cannot agree with UEFA’s process in handling the ban – particularly in light of reports that UEFA cancelled a planned visit to Dagestan – UEFA’s haste and bias do not render their decision invalid.
First and foremost, Anzhi do not have much of a leg to stand on when the team lives and trains in the city of Moscow, 1,800 kilometers from Moscow. To give you an idea just how far the team is based from their home stadium, Moscow is about the same distance from Berlin as is Dagestan. If anyone is perpetuating the myth that Dagestan is an undesirable place to live, it is most certainly the team itself when it bases its players in a metropolitan city so far away.
If Makhachkala is not safe for Anzhi’s own players to live, why should they then expect teams for all over Europe to come play there? It is fitting that Anzhi has to play their UEFA games in Moscow, considering that is where the team lives and trains.
Secondly, the situation in Dagestan cannot be viewed in a vacuum. The political circumstances in Dagestan are precarious and always have been, ever since Russia first tried to incorporate Dagestan into its borders. It took the reign of multiple Tsars over forty years to defeat the mountainous region of Dagestan over the first half of the 19th century. Dagestan, led by their militant-Islamic leader Iman Shamil, fought vigilantly, with great guile and fortitude to protect their land.
This was no small feat, considering up until that time period Dagestan did not exist as a unified unit. The North Caucasus as a whole features multiple ethnic groups and strong clan based culture in which one mountain village may speak an entirely different language than the next village over. The unification of such a divided population against the entire Russian empire was made possible by the conversion of much of the region to Islam, as well as cultural predisposition to independence in the mountains. Quite frankly, Dagestan is not a place that ever belonged in the Russian federation under any test – culturally, linguistically, historically, socially – yet here it is today, in Russia, and the same issues keep coming to the forefront.
As a very recent example, earlier this month, the mayor of Makhachkala, Said Amirov, was arrested by Russian Special Forces in a military style operation. His departure as the most powerful politician in Dagestan, creates a new power vacuum that can ultimately lead to more violence.
According to the well-known Dagestani social scientist, Enver Kisriev, the former mayor “held back radical structures … and was always loyal to all the leaders of Dagestan and to the authorities in general. What has happened now practically threatens the remnants of the order that still was in place in Dagestan.” This decision by Moscow pushes Dagestan into the “abyss of civil war.” Other experts predict this is a Moscow based plan to institute a military rule in Dagestan.
Yet it is not just this incident that makes Dagestan an unpredictable and dangerous place, it is the fact that there are events like this on a regular basis. It is just such a reshuffling of power in which the federal Russian government seeks to gain control over Dagestan while also keeping the locals appeased that creates such a problem. As Dagestan is a heterogeneous society, based on multiple ethnic groups and revolving around different clans- any perceived slight or imposition of power without considering another group will create dissatisfaction.
The current Head of Dagestan is dependent on Moscow for power, and has not negotiated with the different ethnic groups to achieve his position of power. Yet Russia does not want to create another Chechnya, with an all-powerful leader with his own cult of personality in a totalitarian and independent police state. Thus the situation is continually precarious.
It is in these complicated circumstances that Suleyman Kerimov is building his Anzhi project. It is an admirable project to bring Dagestan forward and it has been a success so far. But any kind of incident will only set it back.
In early 2011 the conflict in Dagestan approached the level of Civil War. Islam has become central to the insurgency, in particular in Dagestan. While Chechnya has essentially become free from violence as a result of the police state under its President Kadyrov, the Islamic militant incidents that led to devastating civil war in Chechnya have been pushed to the neighboring Republics. Kabardino-Balkaria, the Republic that features Spartak Nalchik, a Russian football club who recently sustained many years in the Russian Premier League, has seen increased violence. And although the militant insurgents are an extreme minority, it will only take one act of violence to severely damage football in Dagestan for years to come.
The politically turbulent situation cannot be ignored. No one is to blame for the issues. Each side – from local security forces to Russian federal forces, from local Dagestani leaders right up to Putin himself – are each to blame. But shifting blame does not change the reality of the situation. There is still a legitimate threat of regional criminal groups taking power, which will ultimately result in increased terrorist activities in the region.
Furthermore, it must be questioned if Russia itself wants to hold European football games in its most dangerous region that is also most likely the most dangerous place in Europe. While Moscow approves of Kerimov’s footballing project in Dagestan, with the Sochi Olympics around the corner in February 2014, Russia cannot risk an incident to endanger their showcase.
The Sochi Olympics have their own issues with ethnically indigenous people to the region, as the ethnic Circassians were expelled from their lands by Russian Tsars in the 19th century. These lands include modern day Sochi. The Circassians maintain a strong diaspora and seek their own state within the North Caucasus, and there are reports of a militant side in response to Circassian demands for repatriation. These demands are obviously not welcomed by Russia.
Thus the situation in the region is tense. As Andy noted, there are issues with violence among various clubs in Russia and Anzhi supporters, including incidents with deaths. Distinguishing between violence towards Russians as opposed to foreigners is a fine line to walk. In the end, violence is violence. The Anzhi project is new, and it will eventually host European games. It is too risky to do so yet, and an act of violence by militants of any kind would only add fuel to the fire and further alienate the Dagestani population from the forces that seek to govern it.
(If interested in further political and social occurrences in the region, be sure to check out The Jamestown Foundation, an excellent resource http://www.jamestown.org/regions/thecaucasus/north-caucasus/.)
Author: Andy Shenk
I discovered football when my family moved to Russia in the early 2000′s. I’ll never forget sprinting around my house after Russia qualified for Euro 2008, belting out the Russian national anthem. Since 2011, I’ve supported Anzhi in all its inspiring glory and heartbreaking dysfunction. Also Andrei Eschenko’s #1 American fan.