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“No water for kids, and no electricity for three days”: Unrest over energy collapse in Russia’s Dagestan

In Dagestan, a Russian region in the North Caucasus, locals have been blocking roads and besieging public offices almost daily since late July, outraged by frequent power outages. The republic’s energy infrastructure is on the brink of collapse. Blackouts are causing food in stores to go bad, disabling traffic lights, and leaving families without water or electricity for hours if not days. Desperate residents are chipping in to buy new cables, but this doesn’t help. Meanwhile, the authorities, unable to fix the situation, are blaming Ukraine for the apparent “destabilization”.

  • Makhachkala: “Pro-Ukrainian Provocations”

  • Outskirts: “Light, Water, Garbage!”

  • “All Food in the Fridge is Gone”

  • “Everything I Buy Gets Fried”

  • “That's Russia for You!”

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Makhachkala: “Pro-Ukrainian Provocations”

On the evening of August 18, a few dozen protesters gather in Imama Shamilya Avenue in the center of Makhachkala, the Dagestani capital. Drivers on the road honk in sympathy, passing by the rally in the dark street, illuminated by nothing but shop windows and the lights of their cars.

“Turn the light on!” a boy of around ten shouts, standing by his mother’s side.

The police are present, a handful of officers and a car, but they are being civil, presumably because many of the protesters are women. On other days of the protests, they weren’t hesitant about using force to dispel the crowd.

One of the protesters recalls how his father, an elderly diabetes patient, was roughly apprehended the other day, and it wasn’t until all of their neighbors rushed to his defense that the police let him go.

Protesters in a dark Imama Shamilya Avenue
Protesters in a dark Imama Shamilya Avenue

The protesters in Imama Shamilya Avenue are demanding answers as their houses have been left without electricity for 13 hours. A power outage in Makhachkala also means there is no running water, either hot or cold. In the blistering summer heat, the situation quickly becomes critical for families with children, especially infants.

According to the protesters, the authorities aren’t giving out potable water, and there are no technical water reservoirs either. Even bottled water in convenience shops is in short supply.

“What else are we supposed to do? When we call the hotline, they either don’t pick up or ridicule us, saying things like ‘oh, a cat must’ve hanged itself on a pole’,” the young man rants.

Meanwhile, Sergey Melikov, the head of Dagestan, has been dismissing protests as provocations perpetrated by “pro-Ukrainian agents”, only further infuriating locals, who have taken to the streets without any political demands. The protesters we spoke to denied following any radical or pro-Ukrainian channels; many of them are elderly women, some religious. They coordinated the protest in a neighborhood chat.

Sergey Melikov, the head of Dagestan, has been dismissing protests as provocations perpetrated by “pro-Ukrainian agents”

Public officials are also here, from the city administration and utility services. They are having a hard time reassuring the protesters, despite the name-dropping. (“I’m on the phone with the head of DagEnergo himself!”) The crowd grows restless, and the official who introduced himself as the deputy head of Makhachkala’s Leninsky District offers to show the site of the accident that caused the blackout – as proof that repairs are, indeed, underway.

A handful of protesters agree to go take a look, while the rest stay in place. The officials keep promising the power will be up again in no time – “Just another half an hour, forty minutes tops, until we test the new cable!” – but the crowd refuses to believe them. They’ve heard too many promises today.

During the protest in a dark Imama Shamilya Avenue, nightlife is bustling in the heart of Makhachkala just a few blocks away. It’s Friday night, and there’s a fair, a concert – a host of events to entertain the thousands of tourists the republican capital is proud to welcome. All the lights are on, and no one has to worry about blackouts.

Just around the corner, the center of Makhachkala is flooded with light
Just around the corner, the center of Makhachkala is flooded with light

Outskirts: “Light, Water, Garbage!”

It’s very easy to tell if there’s power supply in Reduktorny Poselok: just check if water is dripping from air conditioners in windows. It’s 33 degrees Celsius (91.4 Fahrenheit) in this residential area southeast of Makhachkala, so locals switch on air-cons whenever they get the chance – which isn't often. This coastal zone is notorious for its power outages, and the tenants of its apartment blocks have been protesting against the authorities’ negligence since late July.

On August 15, a few dozen locals, mostly women, blocked a road, chanting “We need light!” and “Light, water, garbage!” On the following day, we spoke to one of the protesters, Marina (all names in the story have been changed), who runs a fabric shop.

She complains that the authorities are in the habit of switching off the power supply from ten in the morning to three or four in the afternoon. On the day of the protest, there was no electricity from ten a.m. to ten p.m. “When we blocked the road, they switched it on, of course, to shut us up. But the next day, they turned it off again!” According to her, the officials are using a stick-and-carrot approach, threatening the most active with fines for “inciting mutiny”.

Local public officials are engaging with residents, trying to reassure them and get them to disperse
Local public officials are engaging with residents, trying to reassure them and get them to disperse

The republic has been facing troubles with electricity supply since late July. While power outages are not uncommon here, even in winter, they are normally less disruptive. The authorities cited the anomalous heat wave as the main cause and promised to remedy the situation in mid-August, but the end of summer didn’t bring much-needed respite. The best the authorities could do is come up with a makeshift schedule of outages that no one appears to observe.

A local who bought a voltage stabilizer for his home appliances noticed that the AC mains voltage fluctuated around 80 V, with a bare minimum of 150-160 for the device to work.

Marina has also been noticing more ambulances in the street. As is often the case, young children and the elderly are the most vulnerable. Marina worries about her employee, a woman in her late sixties, who often returns home from work during blackouts and has to use the stairs to get to her apartment on the 11th floor. With her proneness to hypertension, the exercise can be risky.

In the blistering heat, blackouts become a health hazard
In the blistering heat, blackouts become a health hazard

The deterioration rate of Dagestan’s power lines amounts to 75%, and that of main substations reaches 85%, significantly exceeding national averages, according to Marat Shikhaliev, the regional energy minister. The booming housing development creates an excessive load on faulty, obsolete equipment – which partly explains the situation in Reduktorny Poselok and many other Makhachkala suburbs.

The deterioration rate of Dagestan’s power lines amounts to 75%, and that of main substations reaches 85%, significantly exceeding national averages

The new apartment blocks near Marina’s home are supposed to have a substation of their own, but many such substations exist only on paper. Locals have been told the Prosecutor General’s Office in Moscow will look into it shortly, but they don’t believe anything will change. “Last year, officials came all the way down from Rostov to check the meters and replace them. It didn’t help, though.” Locals are joking that the authorities will always find an excuse, be it heat in summer, wind in the fall, or frost in winter.

Disabled traffic lights in Makhachkala
Disabled traffic lights in Makhachkala

On the way back from Reduktorny to the city center, we noticed that traffic lights were off in Petra Pervogo Avenue – another downside of the energy crisis, which the officials are failing to address. Traffic police aren’t in a hurry to regulate traffic, so drivers have to take the matter into their own hands. Meanwhile, there is no shortage of police at protests, both in uniform and civvies.

“All Food in the Fridge is Gone”

The energy collapse also causes food to go bad, both at home and in stores. Marina’s family has given up dairy, an important part of their diet, for fear of food poisoning and often buys food in the deli because nothing they cook at home lasts long. A change in alimentary habits has been a burden on the family budget.

Like Reduktorny Poselok, Makhachkala’s Kirovsky District also has a telling sign for blackouts: the hum of diesel generators outside small shops. “Electricity went down three hours ago, and we’ve been offline for three days now,” confirms a customer in one such shop.

The despondent shop owner is taking spoiled foods off the shelves, adding them to long rows of milk cartons, yogurt cups, and cheese lumps on the floor. As he explains, the generator barely provides enough power for lighting, not the refrigerators, and in forty-degree heat (over 100°F), even a three-hour blackout is enough for the goods to go bad.

Spoiled food in a shop after a power outage
Spoiled food in a shop after a power outage

The customers in line are considering walking out in protest again: “Last time, when they made enough noise, electricity and running water were on in no time!” On another occasion, the residents of two neighboring blocks chipped in to replace old wires connecting their buildings to the mains, but it didn’t help. As a result, they joined the residents of neighboring villages and districts, blocking Gadzhi-Ali Akushinskogo Avenue – one of Makhachkala’s arterial roads.

“Everything I Buy Gets Fried”

In August, Makhachkala alone saw at least ten protests, but people walked out in Kaspiysk, Derbent, Izberbash – all over the country, enraged by the loss of costly appliances and equipment, among other things.

Rasul and Fatima, a family couple from Kizilyurt, started a small sewing business from home a few years back. But the power supply is so poor and unstable that the family has lost an air-con, a freezer, and a stabilizer due to voltage spikes – all in one summer. Fatima is hesitant to launch her sewing machine, afraid of losing her livelihood to another power interruption, and when she does push the pedal, the machine soon stops, as the voltage is too low: the indicator shows 170-180 V.

Rasul and Fatima's tailor shop in Kizilyurt
Rasul and Fatima's tailor shop in Kizilyurt

The problems with power supply are all the more surprising considering Kizilyurt’s proximity to the cascade of hydropower plants on the Sulak River: Chiryurt-1, Chiryurt-2, and Gelbakh, which make up a single hydropower suite managed by the Dagestani affiliate of RusHydro, Russia's state-owned hydroelectric power company. Even the town’s coat of arms features an HPP.

The authorities are busier scrutinizing small businesses for alleged electricity theft than replacing outdated power grid elements

However, frail power distribution equipment doesn't let the region reap the advantages of the cascade, and the authorities are busier scrutinizing small businesses like Fatima’s for alleged electricity theft than replacing outdated power grid components. Fatima herself explains the suspiciously low energy consumption by the voltage being too low to use her machines.

“That's Russia for You!”

From January to July 2023, power distributor Rosseti Northern Caucasus filed 2,103 debt collection claims for a total of $7.4 million. Meanwhile, the republic needs another $51 million a year to ensure a stable power supply, claims Sergey Melikov, the head of Dagestan. The reported scarcity continues to persist even after the operator ramped up earnings allocated for power grid maintenance by 60%, reaching an all-time high of $87 million.

Locals fear an attempt to make up for the deficit by raising energy tariffs may inflate consumer electricity bills by 60%. Should that happen, Dagestan is unlikely to see the protests subside anytime soon, despite Melikov’s threats of a crackdown. In any case, fixing the republic’s energy infrastructure would take years, regardless of the source of funding.

While marked by a prevalence of traditional ways of life and general loyalty to the Kremlin, Dagestan has nevertheless been a seat of domestic tension for the Russian government since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. In the fall of 2022, it was Dagestan that offered the strongest pushback to Putin’s “partial mobilization” initiative, with hundreds of Dagestanis, men and women, refusing to fight “a war that’s not ours”. Yet, as a result of a sweeping mobilization effort, Dagestan and several other ethnic republics rank among the leaders by the number of mobilized troops, with combat losses upping the republic’s mortality rate by a record 105%, according to IStories.

An anti-mobilization protest in Makhachkala, 2022
An anti-mobilization protest in Makhachkala, 2022

For such a close-knit, traditional society, these losses are very tangible, especially in smaller communities. And while the sentiment is far from pro-Ukrainian or even anti-Russian, there is pronounced bitterness toward the republican and central government. As one of the protesters in Imama Shamilya Avenue put it, “If Dagestan is Russia, you can see what kind of a country it is!”

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