On October 5, Terek Cossacks held a rally in the village of Sengileevskoe in Stavropol region. About 200 Cossacks from Stavropol region, the republics of the North Caucasus and the rebel-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine gathered to discuss what they see as the region’s precarious situation. The participants called on President Vladimir Putin to stop dividing the Cossacks into those on the government payroll, the so-called Registry Cossacks, and those not in government service, the so-called Non-Registry Cossacks. The Cossacks also addressed an open letter to Moscow’s envoy in the North Caucasus, Sergei Melikov, condemning what they called the “forcible Islamization of the region” (skfonews.info, October 16).
Cossacks have long been dissatisfied with their status in the Stavropol region and across southern Russia, hoping to acquire a somewhat higher social status than the North Caucasus’ ethnic non-Russians. However, the authorities have been forced to navigate between the interests of the increasing population of ethnic non-Russians and ethnic Russians who are often represented by Cossacks. Ironically, the North Caucasians who reside in the Stavropol region also do not feel protected by the government, given that the authorities have mounted multiple offensives against the region’s Muslims, shutting down mosques and arresting Muslim clergy on questionable grounds.
“After the Stavropol region was included in the newly established North Caucasian Federal District in 2010 against the will of its people, the region has increasingly experienced high economic, religious and criminal expansion from the neighboring republics,” the letter to Sergei Melikov stated. “These negative processes justly concern first of all the Russian and Cossack population of the region, which comprises 80 percent of the total population. After the exodus of Russians and Cossacks from Ingushetia and Chechnya and the formation of a Vainakh [the common ethnic name for the Chechens and the Ingush] mono-ethnic enclave, the process of de-Russification started to take hold in the Stavropol region itself” (ansar.ru, October 28).
Such complaints from the Cossacks have become quite common in the southern regions of Russia that border the North Caucasus republics with majority Muslim populations. Since the government does little to prevent hate speech, especially when it comes from ethnic Russians, the Cossacks and Russian nationalists have become increasingly bold. Now, the Cossacks circumstantially attack Putin’s closest regional ally, Ramzan Kadyrov, and Muslims in general. Among others, the Cossacks are especially concerned over the issue of mosques being built in Stavropol region.
“We, the Cossacks of Stavropol, respect all world religions, including Islam, but we are strongly opposed to inviting an intra-Muslim bloody clash onto Stavropol’s soil along with the resumption of construction of mosques in the resort area of the Caucasian Mineral Waters [Kavkazskie Mineralnye Vody], which was stopped by the court’s decision,” the Cossacks stated in their letter to Melikov. “Any construction of new mosques in the other towns of Stavropol region should start only after a local referendum.” The Cossack activists condemned the Muslim movement in the North Caucasus for lifting the government ban on female students wearing hijab in state schools and warned that a religious conflict might start if these attempts are not dropped (ansar.ru, October 28).
Historically, the Cossacks and the central government in Moscow have had a symbiotic relationship. The Cossacks received certain freedoms and privileges that others did not have. In return the Cossacks served in the Russian state service, advancing the interests of the state through military conquest and resettlement of the Russian speaking population in captured lands. This time, to make themselves useful to the government in Moscow again, the Cossacks also discussed the situation in Ukraine and proposed their own solutions. They decided to set up a committee that would oversee humanitarian aid collection for the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. More importantly, the Cossacks discussed the opening of an “official representation office” for Ukraine’s Donetsk region in Stavropol region of Russia (terskiykazak.livejournal.com, October 5). The move would pave the way for the start of the gradual absorption process of the Ukrainian territory into Russia. In return, the Cossacks expect some concessions from Moscow, which may be inclined to help them more than ever. The Cossacks are dissatisfied with their treatment by Moscow, which switches on the Cossack factor for some purposes and then switches it off again.
In their turn, the Muslims of the North Caucasus complain about pressure from the government. The authorities in the southern part of the Stavropol region known as Caucasian Mineral Waters, have stepped up efforts to contain the spread of Islam in the region. Courts have ordered mosques destroyed under the pretext that they were built illegally. Even those Islamic religious leaders in Stavropol region who are approved of by the Russian government eventually run into trouble and are killed or end up behind bars. The imam of the city mosque in Kislovodsk, Kurmanali Baichorov, was accused of heroin possession last year (rosbalt.ru, October 21, 2013). A predecessor in the post of imam of the Kislovodsk mosque, Abubekir Kurdzhiev, was killed in 2006 and an ethnic Russian convert to Islam, Roman Koyushev, was sentenced for the crime, even though he refused to plead guilty (1tv.ru, May 18, 2007). Kurdzhiev’s successor as imam of the Kislovodsk mosque, Nazbi Adzhiev, was accused of involvement in the killing of the deputy mufti of Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Ismail Bostanov, in 2009 (regnum.ru, September 3, 2010).
Given the ethnic Russian nationalist euphoria in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea and the continuing war in eastern Ukraine, Cossacks in the North Caucasus are making another attempt to establish themselves as a social group with a status superior to that of the non-ethnic-Russian North Caucasians. Lingering tensions between ethnic Russians and ethnically non-Russian North Caucasians, which disappeared from the news at the height of the conflict in Ukraine, now seem to have made their way back and are now one more in a number of issues affecting the stability and cohesion of the North Caucasus.