Moscow Looks to Cossacks to Deal With North Caucasus Instability

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 79

The Cossacks first appeared in the Caucasus as they fled their masters in Russia. Hiding in the foothills of the North Caucasus, they absorbed many elements of the lifestyle of the Caucasus highlanders (the Gortsy), from their garments and arms to adopting their mentality. As time went on, though, the Cossacks were turned into an instrument by the Russian Empire against the very highlanders who gave them shelter in the first place. The Cossacks were then settled in lands that the tsars conquered from the highlanders. Land was exactly the commodity that became the source of the centuries-old animosity between the Gortsy and the Cossacks. The Bolsheviks skillfully took advantage of the antagonisms between them in 1918-1922. Allying with the Gortsy, the Bolsheviks successfully finished off their arch-enemies, the Terek and Kuban Cossacks, who lived in the valleys of the two rivers.

Given this background of historical antagonism, it is strange to hear some top-level Russian officials saying something like this: “We really have a difficult situation in Dagestan, a difficult situation in Ingushetia and in a number of other republics. It would be desirable if a Cossack presence was strengthened there, in those territories, so that we could strengthen the Russian-speaking population in those republics. This is also a very significant policy direction.” That is what Aleksandr Khloponin, the Russian president’s envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District, told the Terek Cossack community during a meeting on April 18 (www.chechnyafree.ru/article.php?IBLOCK_ID=388&SECTION_ID=0&ELEMENT_ID=92256).

The very fact that the meeting between Khloponin and a local Cossack community was also attended by the deputy chief of the administration of the Russian president, Aleksandr Beglov, is important evidence that it is becoming a state policy rather than the private initiative of Medvedev’s new representative to the region. What Khloponin is suggesting is that the Cossacks become what they were during the period of the Russian Empire. Considering that the number of the local Terek Cossacks stands at around 35,000 –it follows that it is a force which may gradually cause inter-ethnic clashes with the local highlanders. It is important to note that the strengthening of the Cossacks is not meant to help defend the Caucasus region and its population from a foreign enemy. Instead, it was emphatically noted during the meeting that the Cossacks would better serve as a defense force for the local ethnic Russian population. This, in fact, means that an ethnic-based paramilitary unit will be established against the indigenous peoples of the North Caucasus. In addition, this decision suggests that the situation across the region does not look good.

It is not difficult to guess that as the Kremlin’s new policy gains momentum, it will be accompanied by a strong propaganda campaign in defense of the Cossacks and their historic mission. It is only logical that the question of land has also become an issue immediately. For instance, the Cossacks are suggesting that they be allocated land in every Russian republic. The size of the land to be allotted is already conflict-prone. The Cossacks calculate that “in order for one Cossack farm to normally develop, at least 100 hectares are needed” (www.interfax-russia.ru/South/view.asp?id=139087). Meanwhile, the highlanders can barely afford to own even one hectare.

Moscow’s new policy is not new at all. It was first voiced some five years ago by then-President Vladimir Putin, who proposed a number of measures aimed at enforcing Cossack influence in the region. In light of those steps, local authorities started creating special Cossack programs to facilitate the return of ethnic Russians who had left the North Caucasus republics in response to the instability in Chechnya. In some republics, such as Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan, these types of government programs have been in place since 2006. Nevertheless, the future of those programs is elusive against the backdrop of the total destabilization of the entire North Caucasus region. Interestingly, those five-year programs end in 2010 and it can be safely concluded that they have been a complete failure (http://skfonews.ru/article/12). Instead of returning, more and more ethnic Russians –and first and foremost Cossacks– are leaving the region (http://skfonews.ru/article/31). Those who have been polled cite the “unstable situation in neighboring areas” as the major reason for their departure (http://skfonews.ru/article/4). That is why an attempt to revive the already quite badly unraveled Cossack issue would result in nothing but additional tensions between highlanders and ethnic Russians. Apparently, those who are trying to make the situation worse hope to draw additional security forces (siloviki) –the defense ministry, the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the interior ministry– into the region in the name of saving the Russians and defeating the forces of extremism and nationalism.

The inauspicious situation in the North Caucasus seemingly requires extraordinary solutions from the government. In reality, though, the steps taken by Moscow resemble a Russian matryoshka doll. No matter how many times you open it, a smaller doll remains. At times, Moscow unites the siloviki and then disunites them. It subordinates them to each other, changing the FSB to the interior ministry or vice versa, it always revolves around the very same organizations on which the government depends: the FSB, the interior ministry and the Prosecutor General’s office.

Thus, on April 19, just three weeks after President Medvedev visited the Dagestani capital Makhachkala, it was announced that a permanent anti-terrorist interagency operative group had been created in the North Caucasus Federal District that includes representatives from the FSB, the interior ministry and the Prosecutor General’s Investigative Committee. The group is charged with investigating terrorist activities (Gazeta, April 19). It goes without saying that this unit will be presented to the public as an innovation of global proportions, whose very existence would elicit deafening results. But what it represents in reality could be explained with the popular Russian expression, roughly translated into English as “beat the air” or “mill the wind.” Moscow lives in its own spurious and virtual world and seems to be happy deceiving itself and the Russian people –who, by the way, cannot understand why the insurgents in the North Caucasus could not be defeated in 11 years of war against them and why they are instead slowly expanding instead broadening their sphere of influence to cover Russia proper.

The Cossacks and the new structure will not be able to remedy the changing picture in the North Caucasus. The number of people refusing to trust the state’s ideology is increasing and they are seeking and finding answers in the slogans of nationalism and radicalism. It is not just a party or a community but an entire part of society that is becoming radicalized, and it is impossible to correct the situation simply with slogans denouncing corruption.