Cossack Participation in Elections May Destabilize Russia

By Paul Goble
Two weeks ago, the Russian Presidential Council of Cossack Affairs officially gave its blessing to the formation of Cossack “druzhinniki” patrol units, many of which have already been formed, and to the formation of Cossack political parties for participating in regional and municipal elections. To legitimize its decision, the Council cited the provisions of the Kremlin’s strategy document for the development of Russian Cossackry up to 2020 that was approved in September 2012 (
How fast these decisions will be implemented is an open question—the Council indicated that some will occur in 2014–2015 and others only after that time. And because they will require changes in Russian law, it is almost certain that they will generate opposition among both ethnic-Russian and non-Russian groups who will object to Cossacks having a right that other nationalities lack. Furthermore, some will fear that such parties could become a Trojan horse for extremist elements in Russia. Kremlin efforts to secure such laws are, therefore, likely to provoke demands from Russians and non-Russians alike that they too should be given the right to form ethnically-based parties.
The decision of the Presidential Council on Cossack Affairs to allow Cossacks to form political parties and participate in local and regional elections could prove even more destabilizing to the Russian Federation than the involvement of Cossacks in patrolling Russian cities. First, many non-Russians view the Cossacks as a Russian force. They will thus likely see the emergence of such parties as akin to allowing the Russians the right to form an ethnically based political party—something nationalities in the Russian Federation are now blocked from doing. Second, many Russians will be radicalized by this step because they are certain to view the nationalist Cossacks as the closest thing the Russian nation can have to a party defined by nationality in the Russian Federation. And third, many Cossacks will view Moscow’s support in this area as another step toward their recognition as a separate nationality, something many of them seek but have so far been denied.
In the early 1990s, there were many ethnically based parties in non-Russian regions and republics, but these were gradually squeezed out of the legal space of the Russian Federation. These nationality-based parties were not necessarily viewed as a direct threat to the country’s territorial integrity, but rather it was argued their existence provoked discussions that ethnic Russians needed a party of their own—something many ethnic Russians still believe. The formation of such an ethnic-Russian party would likely have made the country ungovernable.

By allowing the Cossacks to form a party and to participate in local and regional elections, Moscow has reopened this issue, all the more so because ethnic tensions are greater now than they have been at any time since 1991. Furthermore, the Cossacks, having been given this right, have indicated that they want to compete for seats in the Russian Duma, something the Kremlin has not agreed to and probably will not. Thus, on that third front as well, Moscow faces new problems because of a decision that was made without a clear understanding of its implications.