The fight is on in Moscow to coopt Russia’s resurgent Cossack movement. Communists and nationalists in the Duma tried to win Cossack support this week with a Communist-sponsored bill that would grant Cossacks the right to bear arms. The bid was thwarted by liberal parliamentarians. Members of the Yabloko faction said it would return Russia to feudalism by creating a stratum of society possessing privileges not extended to other societal groups. (Interfax, January 15)
Meanwhile, Security Council official Boris Berezovsky traveled to Stavropol krai in the north Caucasus to attend a meeting of Cossack atamans. Alarmed by the prospect of Chechen independence, Cossacks throughout southern Russia are demanding the right to form armed units and to patrol the border between Chechnya and Stavropol. Otherwise, they say, Chechnya’s new government will carry out genocide in the Russian-inhabited districts of the north of the republic. (Russian Radio, January 15) At first, Berezovsky got a hostile reception. But Cossack leaders warmed when he told them that he supported many of their demands, including the right to form self-defense units. He said he would advise President Boris Yeltsin that the Cossacks should be consulted on regional matters and be helped in the creation of a centralized body to oversee what they claim is Russia’s 17 million-strong Cossack community. (Interfax, January 15)
Berezovsky tried hard to steer a middle course and to mollify the Cossacks while conceding as little as possible. He told the Cossacks he sympathized with their evaluation of the Khasavyurt accords of August 1996 (which paved the way for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya) as "treachery," but said that Russia must honorably observe the accords now that they have been signed. He also said that he would support the Cossacks’ demand to be allowed to form armed units and to patrol the border with Chechnya, but cautioned that Moscow would not send troops back to the three Russian-inhabited districts of northern Chechnya in order to protect the population. Berezovsky also ruled out any possibility of these three districts being transferred from Chechnya to Stavropol krai. But he did promise to support the Cossacks’ demand for more favorable media coverage of their concerns. This at least is a promise that Berezovsky, who used to co-own Russian Public TV, ought to be able to fulfill.
In 1994-95, when Nikolai Yegorov headed Yeltsin’s administration, the Kremlin fostered the Cossack movement and promised it a number of privileges. After Yegorov was replaced by Anatoly Chubais, the Kremlin lost interest in the Cossacks and Communist and nationalist leaders tried to step in and woo the movement. Now the Yeltsin administration seems to have woken up to the fact that, if their grievances are ignored, the Cossacks could turn into a loose cannon and create havoc in the north Caucasus. Problems might then arise not only between Chechnya and its neighbors, but also in other strategically sensitive and ethnically mixed regions such as Krasnodar krai and Kalmykia. Such considerations underlay Berezovsky’s attempt to forestall the Duma’s efforts to coopt the movement.
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