By David McArdle –
Word association with the North Caucasus and with Dagestan in particular is changing. Instead of “insurgency”, “bombings”, “terrorism”, recent investments in Anzhi, Dagestan’s Russian Premier League representatives have diverted attention towards footballing opportunists such as “Samuel Eto’o”, “Yuri Zhirkov”, and “Willian Borges da Silva”. A Robin Hood gesture from Dagestan-born owner Suleyman Kerimov or a Kremlin-encouraged scheme to clean up the North Caucasus’ image prior to the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014? Football it seems is the latest addition to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’s expanding soft power arsenal.
Anzhi Makhachkala of Dagestan welcomed North Ossetia’s Alania Vladikavkaz last Sunday in a fixture that coarsely contrasted the footballing trajectories of two North Caucasus neighbours. Vladikavkaz, whose name translates (historically) into ‘rule of the Caucasus’, anxiously await relegation to euthanise their vegetative season, while Anzhi are locked in a Lermontovian duel with Leningrad’s bourgeoisie Zenit for silver, assuming CSKA maintain their canter to the crown. Of note, in spite of the Tsar versus serf framing, the match ended 0-0.
Alania – a side featuring their recent capture Royston Drenthe – were Russian league victors back in 1995, the result of which saw a Brain Laudrup-wielding Glasgow Rangers maraud to a 7-2 win in Russia’s Caucasian frontier to blockade Alania’s sole attempt at reaching the summit of the Champions League. Since then, however, such heights have not been seen again, which culminated in relegation from the top division in 2005.
The same tale of demise cannot be told of their hosts, Anzhi, whose profile grows with each release of Forbes magazine. According to MoreThanArshavin – a dusty archive of Russian football knowledge (minus the insufferable bureaucracy) – “although Anzhi did exist before Suleyman Kerimov took charge, they are not one of Russia’s oldest clubs… Instead, as their club badge would suggest, Anzhi came into being only in 1991, the latest team to emerge from Makhachkala after the local Dinamo dropped rapidly down the leagues. Russianist Rob Dillon, of MTA continues, “If instability is a word often used to describe the political, religious and ethnic situation in Dagestan, then this period of Anzhi’s history shows a remarkable parallel. From relegation in 2002 to promotion under Omar Tetradze seven years later, the Makhachkala side worked their way through no fewer than five permanent managers and three different caretakers.”
Anzhi, indeed, are a current object of wonder – a crystal (foot)ball – for those whose job it is to gawk into spheres relating to economics, (geo)politics, sport, or all the above, in the post-Soviet space. But why Anzhi of Makhachkala? While fair to assume a financial injection inspired Anzhi’s metamorphosis in (fiscal) fortune, it is less so to accept unwaveringly that Suleiman Kerimov’s cheques have been banked with the sole intention of altruistically improving his local football team, to rather vaguely “give something back” to his hometown. After all, the super-rich are inclined to covet clubs in affluent areas, are they not? – perhaps as a means to showcase, to the global audiences football reaches, their nouveau lifestyles, with Chelsea, Paris, and Moscow, premier examples. Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, appears conversely an anomalous backdrop for a task described by current coach and hired hands Guus Hiddink as a “super-club project”.
Dagestan – An Anomalous Setting
In late 2011, the BBC’s Lucy Ash declared Dagestan as ‘Europe’s Most Dangerous Place’ – for example, in the previous year, 378 insurgency-related deaths were recorded in Dagestan, compared to that of 134 in Ingushetia and 127 in Chechnya.
These perceptions of danger, in the footballing context, were documented in the British press as far back as 2001, in the pre-Kerimov years, when Glasgow Rangers drew Anzhi in the latter’s first venture into European competition. Despite the pre-match fanfare in Makhachkala the then-Glasgow Rangers’ chairman David Murray killed the music by refusing to send his team to the Caucasus, citing Makhachkala’s perilous geographical location. Uncharacteristically prophetic, Murray’s decision was made a day before 9/11 – an event which reshaped the world’s axis hitherto affecting significantly Russia’s relationship with the North Caucasus.
Rangers did, however, prior to the announcement, send a not-so-merry band of Flashman-like representatives to Dagestan on a reconnaissance mission, which resembled all the diplomatic pomp and guile – and eventual subterfuge, according to Anzhi – as characterised by those who took part in the Great Game between the British and Russian Empires in their concurrent quest for power and influence in Central Asia. Upon hearing the delegation’s report, released when safely back on Scottish soil, the Russians were apoplectic:
“Those gentlemen from Glasgow visited Makhachkala, supped our expensive cognac and praised the atmosphere in the city,” exhaled Vladimir Rodionov, the Russian Football Union’s secretary in an interview with the Scottish Daily Mail.
In a further statement, resembling an overprotective mother hysterically berating her daughter’s nativity, Rodionov went on: “But I warned the Anzhi management: ‘Don’t listen to them, they will talk in a different way as soon as they get home. They declared how dangerous Makhachkala is. They still can’t understand that Dagestan is not Chechnya where British heads are cut off.” Rodionov appeared unaware of the poignancy of his closing statement in Anzhi’s ultimate failure to mitigate both Rangers’ and UEFA’s concerns. The match was subsequently moved to Warsaw, where Rangers won 1-0.
Suleiman Kerimov – the Secret Oligarch
A financial accounting and economics graduate from Dagestan State University Kerimov started his career by working as an economist on a production line for television conductors in Makhachkala twenty years ago. Kerimov’s wealth, significantly, did not result from contingency and opportunism as was the case throughout the period of cut-price privatization, a scheme synonymous with the anarchic period of Boris Yeltsin’s tenure as Russian president.
Kerimov has been described by the Financial Times, in a rare interview, as the ‘secret oligarch’
Both critical junctures may have induced a joie de vivre in Kerimov, and perhaps a sense of impermanence – that nothing lasts forever. As such, these events fit neatly into the narrative that Kerimov is an altrusitc philanthropist, simply wishing to give something back – a task made easier when coming so close, it appears, to losing it all.
Anzhi – a Projection of Peace
Football imitating the state is not a novel phenomenon. During the Soviet era, the Moscow quartet of Dynamo, Spartak, Torpedo, Lokomotiv, and CSKA, were the footballing incarnate of MVD (Ministry of Interior), food processing and small unions, Car manufacturer ZiL, Ministry of Transportation and now Russian Railroad, and Ministry of Defence, respectively. Thus, according to Sam Knight, who had nigh-on unrestricted access to Anzhi for GQ magazine in 2012, the football league table, and consequent levels of investment, is a barometer which reflects where money and influence resides across the world’s largest country.
It is of little coincidence that the Russian Premier League has four clubs competing – Kuban Krasnodar, Terek Grozny, Alania Vladikavkaz, and Anzhi – all of whom neatly surround the 2014 Winter Olympic Host city, Sochi.
Rasul Khabullayev, spokesman for Dagestan’s president at the time, Magomedsalam Magomedov, explains to The Guardian in 2011: “For Dagestan, football isn’t just football – it’s an entire social phenomenon.” Khabullayev continues, “All this [the Anzhi project] plays a positive role in socio-economic development and also in terms of giving the youth something to do.” Meanwhile, current sporting director Roberto Carlos, in an interview with the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg, remarks sincerely that, “I think football brings joy to Dagestan, especially to Dagestan.” But at what price does this joy come?
Whilst very early to measure Anzhi’s influence on the socioeconomic levels of the region – the monthly salary of which is 12,000 roubles (£245) while official levels of unemployment stand at 11.6%, although considered much higher – signs suggest that the little trickle-down effect has been insignificant.
“We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars”, pens Oscar Wilde in Lady Windermere’s Fan. However, in this case, the stargazing seems to have been induced by the state.
From the top, Kerimov’s party line, in his FT interview, is recited, all too predictably: “[t]he football club stands out against all the negative news. People are starting to hope for the better … Such stars don’t play everywhere, and, look, they’re in Makhachkala! People have something to be proud of. It means they can see something positive there and they gain the motivation to work.” Interestingly, Kerimov fails to elaborate what he meant by having players in Makhachkala as the squad is based on the fringes of Moscow – the same distance as Fes (Morocco) or Reykjavik (Iceland) is to London – transplanted in and then whisked out of Makhachkala for home matches.
The Anzhi project is a public relations exercise in manipulating what images are being projected to the discerning onlooker, which is not lost on some Anzhi followers. “Our region is tense, it’s a hot spot,” says Artur Dobronravov, an affiliate of the Anzhi fan club, Dikaya Diviziya (Wild Division). “But football is good PR – now everyone in the whole world knows about Anzhi.”
Upon arrival at Makhachkala airport, notes Sam Knight, and alongside Makhachkala’s motorways, posters adorn the cityscape: “Anji: New History”, “Anji: Territory of Peace”. A PR insurgency some may call it.
Anzhi, like a Potemkin village, is an expensive construct, designed to exude peace, stability, and even prosperity. Little ambiguity existed concerning Putin’s invitation to a select group to his holiday home on the Black Sea, reported by Sueddeutsche – Germany’s version of The Guardian – to ‘kindly’ invest into areas regarded by the Kremlin as particularly irksome. For instance, Suleiman Kerimov’s takeover of Anzhi, according to The Shin Pad in January 2011 depended upon Kerimov supporting financially the now removed mayor of Dagestan, Magomedsalam Magomedov. In addition, Kerimov’s links with the Kremlin appear to be strong with Chris Barter, former co-chief executive of Goldman Sachs’ Moscow office, alluding that, “[m]any of the things [Kerimov does] seem to be in tandem with the government.”
With the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and the 2018 World Cup in sight, the Kremlin intends to clean up the North Caucasus region. Divergent approaches, however, have been applied in achieving this in Dagestan vis-à-vis its neighbours Chechnya – Kerimov’s calculator appears mightier than Terek Grozny’s tacit ruler Ramzan Kadyrov’s Kalashnikov for now, on the field at least.
However, for the ever-pragmatic Kremlin, the emphasis is on peace by projection, by any means.
“All political power is primarily an illusion… Mirrors and blue smoke, beautiful blue smoke rolling over the surface of highly polished mirrors… If somebody tells you how to look, there can be seen in the smoke great, magnificent shapes, castles and kingdoms, and maybe they can be yours.” – Jimmy Breslin, in Notes from Impeachment Summer, 1975.
David McArdle is a PhD candidate studying Central Asian studies in the UK but is currently a resident of Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan). Originally from Greenock (Scotland), travels through Eastern Europe and the Balkans as an undergraduate precipitated his obsession for the region. Having also lived in Belarus and Georgia, David’s other (non-footballing) passions include kitsch 80s music and Russian literature. You can follow David on Twitter @FrunzeAlba