Cossacks Become the Vanguard of Russian Interests in the North Caucasus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 171

Valentin Ivanov, the Cossack ataman of Kizlyar (Source:

On September 4, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Khloponin and the Russian presidential envoy to the North Caucasian Federal District, Sergei Melikov, visited the city of Kizlyar in northern Dagestan. Among the promises Khloponin made in Kizlyar was to set up a militarized Cossack school for children that would be established as part of a whole network of militarized schools across the entire North Caucasus. He thanked the government of Dagestan for adopting a special program in support of the Cossacks in the republic (, September 4).

Again and again (see EDM, January 7, May 11, June 10), the Cossack theme keeps showing up in the news as a primary component of Russian policy in the North Caucasus aimed at increasing the ratio of ethnic Russians in the region. Russian analysts have repeatedly decried the exodus of ethnic Russians from the North Caucasus, which presumably could jeopardize Kremlin control over the region. The Russian government cannot force ethnic Russians to remain in Dagestan and other North Caucasian republics, and they have been leaving for other Russian regions that offer better prospects. The number of ethnic Russians in Dagestan peaked back in the 1950s, when this group comprised about 20 percent of the republican population. Since then, the percentage of ethnic Russians in the republic has steadily declined; and according to the 2010 census—Russia’s most recent one—they comprise under 4 percent of the republic’s total population of the republic.

Ethnic Russians and Cossacks have traditionally lived in northern Dagestan, particularly in the area around Kizlyar and in the city itself. However, now that the bulk of Russians have left the republic, the Russian government plans to establish Cossack societies in Dagestan’s capital, Makhachkala, and its satellite city of Kaspiisk. The central and republican governments have pledged about $1 million to support the Cossacks in Kizlyar district. The funding comes through a program called “The strengthening of the unity of the Russian nation, and ethno-cultural development of the peoples of Russia in 2014–2020.” In 2013, Cossack organizations asked Moscow to hand over to them nearly all the profitable enterprises in northern Dagestan, including a local brandy company in Kizlyar, but the petition was met with substantial resistance in Dagestan and elsewhere (Kavkazskaya Politika, September 17; see, June 25, 2013).

The appetites of the Cossack organizations back in 2013 bewildered analysts and the public, but they were probably neither accidental nor completely unfounded. Most likely, they came in response to the Russian government’s appeal to them to devise a strategy that would allow them to affirm their presence in the North Caucasus. Moscow ultimately decided not to accede to the Cossacks’ excessive demands, but other ways of working with the Cossacks have been unveiled since then.

Formally, all citizens of Russia are equal before the law, but ethnic Russians are increasingly supported by the government as somewhat “more equal” than others. The federal government supports the Cossacks as a way of fortifying its positions in the North Caucasus. Moscow started to interpret the term “Cossack” in quite a liberal way, ascribing it to all ethnic Russians, regardless of whether they were actually Cossack by blood. The Cossack ataman of Kizlyar, Valentin Ivanov, quite openly stated: “With the view of reviving the Cossacks in Dagestan we plan to establish Cossack communities in the cities of the republic, such as Makhachkala and Kaspiisk, where Russians still live, including some retired military personnel” (Kavkazskaya Politika, September 17).

Even though Russians and Cossacks are equated in official speeches, they are not the same. The bulk of the Cossacks in the North Caucasus were actually ethnic Ukrainians who were resettled in the area by the Russian tsars as part of their policy of conquest and assimilation of the region. Apart from having a separate ethnic identity from Russians, the Cossacks used to be a special social class—a militarized free peasantry.

Now, Moscow has reinterpreted Cossack identity as that of a group of ethnic Russian militiamen. The government claims that it is supporting the ethnic Cossacks in the North Caucasus, but in fact plans simply to direct funds to ethnic Russians in order to keep them in the region. When the North Caucasians realized that Moscow is willing to finance Cossacks, native Cossack groups sprang to life across the region. However, what appears to be yet another arm of the Russian government, the Russian Orthodox Church, intervened, with Patriarch Kirill issuing a warning that only Russian Orthodox people could be true Cossacks.

Attempts by the Russian government to find a pretext for financing the settlement of ethnic Russians in the North Caucasus are unlikely to work, because they are going against the long-term trend of an outflow of ethnic Russians from the region. The exodus of ethnic Russians from the North Caucasus can be traced back to the 1900s and 1970s, when ethnic Russians started to experience a generalized demographic “fatigue.” This situation has continued to this day and is not limited to the outflow of Russians from the region. According to some estimates, in the period between the censuses of 2002 and 2010, the number of ethnic Russians in the Russian Federation dropped from 115 million to 111 million, which is quite substantial for a relatively short time period (, June 16). Sending ethnic Russians to the North Caucasus while the numbers of Russians throughout the country rapidly decline can be attributed to wishful thinking on the part of the Russian establishment.