Moscow Signals Terek Cossacks Have Been Ineffective Tool for Controlling North Caucasus

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 16 Issue: 10

On April 25, after months of public scandals and brawls, the Terek Cossacks elected a new ataman (chieftain). The Cossacks confirmed the only candidate for the position, Alexander Zhuravsky, as the new head of the Terek Cossack Force. The election of the new ataman was carried out against Cossack traditions, without alternative candidates or discussion. A week prior to his appointment as the head of the Terek Cossacks, Zhuravsky was elected to lead the Stavropol branch of the Cossack Force, but he is not considered to be a Cossack by descent (Kavkazskaya Politka, April 26).

The Terek Cossack Force dates back to the 16th century, when the first Cossacks appeared in the North Caucasus. Initially, the Terek Cossacks were comprised of people who fled their communities for various reasons. Relations between the Cossacks on the Terek River and Moscow were contractual, but the Russian government increased its investment in the irregular Cossack forces over time, eventually turning them essentially into part of the Russian army. The Terek Cossacks became militarized settlers who could be quickly moved in to replace the indigenous population in areas that were cleansed of their traditional dwellers. In the aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union, Moscow reverted to using the Cossacks in multiple regional wars in the Caucasus and beyond in much the same way, as it had in the past—the most recent example being Ukraine. Contemporary Cossacks also provide a disguise for Moscow’s military interventions, allowing Russian officials to claim that volunteer Cossacks are supporting certain Moscow-friendly groups.

Despite the Cossacks’ services to the Russian state, Moscow is also acutely aware of the dangers of the rise of a distinct Cossack identity. Traditional Kuban and Terek Cossacks often tend to speak in the traditional Cossack language, a kind of broken Ukrainian called “mova”—“language” in Ukrainian. Moscow, therefore, constantly replaces the heads of the Terek Cossack Force and places emphasis on the Cossacks’ service to the Russian state, rather than on the rebirth of the Cossack nation. The Terek Cossacks have actively participated in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, providing manpower, material and informational support to the pro-Russian forces in Ukraine (, accessed May 11).

Moscow also regards the Terek Cossacks as a contemporary resettlement force to affirm the physical presence of an ethnic-Russian population in the North Caucasus. However, North Caucasus regional governors are successfully competing with—and outperforming—the Cossacks. Changing the capital of the Terek Cossack Force from Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia, to Stavropol was the latest sign of the Cossack retreat from the North Caucasus. The idea behind the move was to use the resources of Stavropol region to improve the positions of the Cossacks in the North Caucasus republics. Yet, observers argue that Moscow has downgraded the importance of the Terek Cossacks in its policies in the region. For example, the authorities initially planned to elevate the Terek Cossack ataman to the level of deputy Stavropol region governor. As a high-profile official, the Terek Cossack ataman would have been able to negotiate with the North Caucasus governors as their equal. Instead, the newly-elected ataman is only deputy to the head of the Stavropol region’s Committee on Cossack Affairs. The election of the ataman appeared to have been manipulated and upset many people. The Cossacks who were unhappy about the single candidacy offered were allowed to speak out only after the vote took place. One of the local atamans warned that if the Cossacks continued to break their own rules and statutes, this would become “the last nail in the coffin of the Terek Force” (Kavkazskaya Politka, April 26).

Moscow’s experiments with the Cossacks in the North Caucasus showed that they can serve only limited tasks, such as providing a formal presence in the region, sending volunteers to regional conflicts and guarding the boundaries of Stavropol region. The Cossacks have largely failed to retain their grip on the North Caucasus republics. The governors of the North Caucasus republics countered the Cossacks’ advances in two primary ways. Some republics, such as North Ossetia, organized their own Cossack forces, which are primarily made up of ethnic Ossetians (, accessed May 11). Even Muslim Ingush managed to gain recognition as Cossacks. “5,000 people call themselves Cossacks in Ingushetia, but only 200 of them are ethnic Slavs,” one commentator bitterly remarked (Kavkazskaya Politika, October 29, 2013).

In Chechnya and Dagestan, the Cossacks are simply excluded from decision-making processes or coopted into local elites. Moscow’s calculations probably indicate that the investment in the Cossack movement in the North Caucasus has been relatively large, but the returns have been relatively modest. Even though Moscow appeared to be willing to create some competitors for the regional governors in the North Caucasus, the Terek Cossacks have been unable to rise to such significance as to be able to balance them. Consequently, the government appears to be scaling down the Terek Cossack Force and concentrating it in the only ethnic Russian majority region in the North Caucasian Federal District—Stavropol region.