Moscow Turns to Cossacks to Staunch the Exodus of Ethnic Russians From the North Caucasus

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 15 Issue: 9

The Cossack issue has become relevant in Russia against the backdrop of the outflow of ethnic Russians from the North Caucasus (http://expert.ru/ratings/izmenenie-doli-russkih-v-naselenii-respublik-severnogo-kavkaza/). Chechnya and Ingushetia have practically become ethnically homogeneous and Dagestan will soon become the next republic to shed its ethnic Russian population entirely (http://skfonews.info/article/124). Ethnic Russians are also leaving North Ossetia and Kabardino-Balkaria (http://www.riss.ru/my-v-smi/2075-status-i-perspektivy-russkogo-naseleniya-na-severnom-kavkaze#.U2CWsrp_v-k). Adygea and Karachaevo-Cherkessia have had large ethnic-Russian populations over the past century and a half, and the situation there is still under Moscow’s control. It should be noted that the outflow of ethnic Russians from the North Caucasus differs from republic to republic. The outmigration of Russians from Dagestan is not the same as the outmigration from North Ossetia, for example. In the first case it is caused by the growth of radical Islam and its confrontation with the authorities, while ethnic Russian are leaving North Ossetia because of the republic’s bleak prospects against the backdrop of a general deterioration of the situation in the area.

It is not surprising that the Russian state has decided to place its bet on the Cossacks, who historically performed the mission of a paramilitary community on the edges of the Russian Empire and moved into the territory of the mountaineers under the protection of the Russian army. The Russian Empire’s presence was affirmed through the presence of the Cossacks. Naturally, the outflow of ethnic Russians today includes Terek Cossacks, which is why Moscow is paying so much attention to propping up the Cossacks in this part of Russia. Sixteen laws, government decrees and amendments involving the Cossacks that have been adopted over the past 20 years, which testifies to how important the Cossack issue is to the Russian government (http://www.cossacks-lb.ru/laws.html). Twelve of these measures were passed while Vladimir Putin was either president or prime minister.

The mountaineers view the rebirth of the Cossack community with alarm. Dispatching a Cossack battalion named after General Alexei Yermolov to Chechnya during the first Russian-Chechen war of 1994–1996 was a great blunder on the part of the Russian government. Yermolov has always been considered a murderer of civilians during the period of Chechnya’s colonization in the 19th century (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=miZ61StT3KU). The unveiling of a monument dedicated to Yermolov in the center of Pyatigorsk was seen as a challenge to the North Caucasian mountaineers (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/178797/). At the same time, the Russian government warns the mountaineers not to erect monuments to people who resisted the Russian generals who conquered the Caucasus in the 19th century (http://rbcdaily.ru/society/562949988962292).

Both the Kuban and Terek Cossacks are located in the North Caucasus. The Terek Cossacks are considered to reside on the most problematic territory, which includes parts of Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Stavropol region. This explains why in January 2010, then-president Dmitry Medvedev made the decision to establish the North Caucasian Federal District, which was carved out of the Southern Federal District. Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, North Ossetia–Alania, Chechnya and Stavropol region were included in the new district. This territory was part of Russia’s Terek and Dagestani oblasts prior to 1917 (http://www.runivers.ru/maps/podratlas/24/).

Cossacks are today widely employed in the Russian military. They do not serve in the 205th Motorized Rifle Brigade based in Budyonnovsk, but rather in the 247th Airborne Assault Regiment, which is stationed in the city of Stavropol (http://xn--80ajpc0b.xn--p1ai/stati/terskoe-kazachestvo-na-sovremennom-etape). The Russian authorities do not hide the fact that they have high hopes for the Cossacks. “The Cossacks must always advance the will of the state and of the president,” Alexander Khloponin, the head of the North Caucasian Federal District, stated on April 23, the day the Terek Cossacks chose a new ataman, or chieftain (http://www.regnum.ru/news/kavkaz/kab-balk/1794641.html).

Vyacheslav Pilipenko, who is an aide to Khloponin, was chosen to be the Terek Cossacks’ new ataman (http://www.contrasterra.ru/news/16643). Pilipenko will retain his government position as Khloponin’s aide, which should strengthen his positions vis-à-vis the leaders of the North Caucasus republics. Thus the government has essentially taken over this Cossack organization and intends to boost the Cossacks’ presence in the North Caucasian republics. In his interactions with the leaders of the North Caucasian republics, the new ataman of the Terek Cossacks will not be simply a civil activist, but a Russian federal government employee. Besides, the Terek Cossacks are capable of putting together a force of 28,000 people, which allows the government to use them instead of or along with the police and the army if needed (http://www.stavregion.ru/news/2014/04/28/izbran-novyj-ataman-terskogo-vojska/). This development is particularly timely given what is happening on the border between Russia and Ukraine.

The Russian Orthodox Church has also been mobilized to help the Cossacks prevent the exodus of ethnic Russians from the North Caucasus. In March 2013, the church inaugurated the Novo-Sinaisky Men Monastery in the village of Ordzhonikidzevskaya in Ingushetia’s Sunzha district. The monastery, which was established on the basis of a local parish (http://kavpolit.com/articles/pravoslavnaja_obitel_ingushetii-3711/), opened despite the fact that there are only about a thousand ethnic Russians living there (http://www.vestikavkaza.ru/articles/47440.html) and Ingushetia’s population is nearly 99 percent Muslim. Attacks by unidentified people on Christian churches in Ingushetia in recent years suggest it is unlikely that the construction of new Christian Orthodox sites will promote religious tolerance in the republic (http://www3.pravmir.ru/vnov-podvergsya-obstrelu-pokro/).

The Cossacks’ role cannot be boosted without undermining the influence of the mountaineers. This is how it was during the Tsarist period in Russia. Today, any step toward enhancing the position of the Cossacks at the expense of the rights of the mountaineers would lead to a flare-up of anti-Russian nationalist sentiment in the region, which would be unacceptable for Moscow. Therefore, the government is not prepared to go the whole way in strengthening Russia’s presence in the region. Moscow cannot keep a large army in the region forever, so arming tens of thousands of Cossacks to some degree solves the issue of controlling the region. Conflicts between the Cossacks and the mountainous population are likely to continue in the near future and there is little chance that the exodus of ethnic Russians from the North Caucasus can be halted anytime in the near future.