Kremlin Backing of Cossacks Heightens Tensions in the North Caucasus

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 9 Issue: 14

Moscow is boosting its programs to support Cossack communities in the Caucasus. The Russian president’s advisor for Cossack affairs, General Gennady Troshev, recently toured the republics of the North Caucasus and met with their respective presidents. The discussions focused on the issues related to government support for the Cossack communities, providing them with office space, government jobs, and involving Cossack troops in protecting the state borders of the Russian Federation (adjoining Georgia and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus) and in combating terrorism and extremism (

The visit also included discussions about a large-scale Cossack military parade planned for April 21 in Krasnodar. It was reported that over 7,000 Cossacks of the Kuban Army from Krasnodar Krai, Adygeya and Karachaevo-Cherkessia will take part in the parade (

The itinerary of Troshev’s spring visits is a clear indication that Moscow plans to strengthen Cossack communities residing along the “Cherkes Arc,” or within the historical Cherkessian territory that is currently split between the republics of Adygeya, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria.

It is worth noting that the original mission of the Cossacks was to create a demarcation line between Cherkessia and Russia. In the words of the notable Russian historian Vassily Potto, “the Russian Cossacks who were brought to the Kuban shores by their historical destiny encountered extraordinary opponents among the Cherkes, and the boundaries of two countries soon became an arena drowned in blood from one side to the other” (The Caucasus War, Vassily Potto, Volume 2, p. 285).

The program to build up the Cossack communities in Cherkessian republics was launched well before Troshev’s visit. In January 2008 the Russian government issued a special decree earmarking 5 million rubles in Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Adygeya to develop the local Cossack communities. These republics hosted Cossack parades and military trainings of the young Cossacks (see Chechnya Weekly, January 31).

Adygeya and Karachaevo-Cherkesia are parts of the area covered by the Kuban Cossack Army headquartered in Krasnodar. Kabardino-Balkaria is a part of the Terek Army headquartered in Stavropol. The Adygeya division is called the Maikopski division and Karachaevo-Cherkessia is known as the Batalpashinski district.

Cossacks are the only social and ethnic community of the Caucasus which the Kremlin has granted the official and exclusive right to bear firearms and knives. According to the first version of the Law on the Public Service of the Russian Cossacks signed by President Putin in 2005, the Cossacks were charged with “providing assistance to government agencies in organizing military records, patriotic and military education of conscripts, physical education, participating in emergency prevention and liquidation measures and protecting the public rule of law and order.” However, amendments made to the law in 2007 also permitted the Cossacks to be involved in the fight against the extremism and terrorism (

These amendments may lead to potentially dangerous changes considering Moscow’s custom of branding any undesirable movement or person, and especially its opponents in the Caucasus, as terrorists and extremists. Therefore, Cossacks automatically become a potential weapon against the local populace that is constitutionally and physically ready to deploy whenever the need arises. It is evident that the Kremlin desires to return the Cossacks to their original mission in the Caucasus: historically, they were resettled in the Caucasus by Catherine the Great as a retaliatory and defensive force against the mountain peoples.

Recent history also offers some precedents for the effective use of Cossacks against population groups disfavored by the government. For instance, the Krasnodar Krai government program “Cossack Participation in Protecting Public Order” allowed Cossacks to be used as the main force for displacing the targeted ethnic minority of Meskhetian Turks. The Cossacks were not too picky about the means they used to do their job: ethnic Turks were subjected to mass beatings and ambushes, their gardens were destroyed, homes looted, and the goods and market stalls of Turkish traders were confiscated.

The Cossacks’ efforts turned out to be successful, and the Turks left Krasnodar Krai after the U.S. government granted them asylum en masse in America. However, the exercise in displacing the Turkish minority became an example of how effective Cossacks may be in dealing with the sensitive task of making people’s lives hell while maintaining the appearance of law and order and non-involvement on the part of the Russian government (

The role of the Terek Cossack Army in both Chechen campaigns is well known. For instance, Putin’s advisor Gennady Troshev was previously commander of the North Caucasus Military District. He served in both wars and was one of the most effective Russian Army generals, due mostly to his roots as an ethnic Terek Cossack and a native of Grozny.

Military training of young Cossacks is one of the priorities of the government program. Cossack army troops participate in all training activities conducted by the Russian Defense Ministry, Interior Ministry and Federal Security Service (FSB). Cossack troops also conduct their own regular training.

The Cossack Lyceum of South Russia recruits approximately 500 adolescent boys and girls every September. Cadets give an oath of loyalty to the Cossack flag and Russia. The faculty of cadet schools includes retired officers of the Russian Defense Ministry, Interior Ministry and FSB. According to the Krasnodar Krai administration, the Kuban Cossack Army numbered over 140,000 troops as of late 2007.

The Kuban Cossack Army is headquartered in Krasnodar, in a two-story building surrounded by a restricted-access area. The headquarters hosts routine weekly troop meetings and important army-wide events.

The Cossack army is financed by the krai’s public funds. In 2007, Krasnodar Krai’s state budget allotted 70 million rubles (around $2.8 million) for the needs of the Cossacks; in 2008, Governor Aleksandr Tkachev earmarked 170 million rubles (around $6.8 million) for the same purpose.

The Kuban Cossacks plan to launch their own newspaper and television channel in 2008 (

The Cossacks of Karachaevo-Cherkesia or the Batalpashinsky district (led by ataman Pavel Zaporozhets) also enjoy a privileged standing in their republic. The government of Karachaevo-Cherkessia includes a department for Cossack affairs and starting in 2006 Cossacks were given jobs as first deputy heads of town and village administrations across the republic. Cossacks also have a priority right for obtaining government contracts to provide security services.

The Batalpashinski district of the Kuban Cossack Army is also financed by the public funds of Karachaevo-Cherkessia.

In early 2000, after the enactment of the law permitting Cossacks to bear arms, ethnic Cherkes and Abazins attempted to join the Kuban Army and establish a Cherkessian regiment within the army. Their elected ataman was an ethic Abazin activist, Kambiz Evgamukov, who remained in the job until his sudden death in 2006. Currently, the Cherkessian regiment continues to exist on paper only and is virtually inactive (

A similar regiment, successfully operating in Vladikavkaz, was established by ethnic Ossetians. The real Cossacks were very uneasy about including Ossetians in their ranks, and they felt the same way about the Cherkes and the Abazins. However, in contrast to the Cherkessian regiment, the Ossetians were able to gain complete control over the Terek Cossacks in Ossetia (

The Ossetian Cossacks are a part of the Terek Army, which during the last decade suffered significant losses as thousands of Cossack families left Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan – the territories formally included in the Terek Cossack catchment area. A small community remains in the Dagestan city of Kizlyar. Terek Cossacks are also somewhat active in the eastern part of Kabardino-Balkaria – in the ethnic Russian district of Prokhladnensky.

The Maikopsky Cossack district is headed by Anatoly Tarasov. Their proximity to Krasnodar explains closer ties of the Maikop (Adygeya) Cossacks with the headquarters in Krasnodar and the lesser degree of independence they enjoy. All activities of the Maikopsky district are tied to Krasnodar and conducted jointly with headquarters-led operations, including military training. The annual Cossack cultural festival in Adygeya is held under the auspices of the Russian Ministry of Culture, the Krasnodar Krai administration and the Congress of Russian Communities of Moscow.

The role of protector of Russia and Russians in the Caucasus seemingly granted to the Cossacks, as well as the special privileges and perks they enjoy, are having mixed results. The Cossacks are indeed becoming a powerful universal weapon in the hands of the state. On the other hand, the growth in their privileges is taking place against the backdrop of increasing oppression against the local ethnicities, especially the Cherkes, who are locked in an uncompromising conflict with the Russian government to defend their status and even their ethnic cultural rights in their own republic. The unconditional support of Russian-speaking Cossacks cannot fail to produce anxiety and suspicion among the non-Russian populace of the Caucasus, who understand how and against whom this weapon is directed and respond with distrust as well as frequently open hostility.