On January 12, Kabardino-Balkaria’s governor, Yuri Kokov, met with the ataman (head) of the Terek Cossack Force, Aleksandr Zhuravsky. The governor’s official website pithily said that the two discussed issues pertaining to the support of traditional Cossack culture and strengthening neighborly relations between the regions of the North Caucasian Federal District (Glava.kbr.ru, January 12). The Kavkazskaya Politika website, however, reported that the Cossacks have substantial plans to expand in Kabardino-Balkaria and claim property rights over land in the republic (Kavkazskaya Politika, January 19).
The influence of Cossack organizations has been growing in the North Caucasus thanks to Russian governmental support for their activities in the region. The status of the Cossacks in the North Caucasus is unclear. Some Cossack leaders claim Cossacks are an ethnic group, while others say they are just faithful servants of Russia’s interests. If they are an ethnic group, then it is unclear why President Vladimir Putin appointed the present head of the Terek Cossack Force to his position in October 2015 (Sevkavportal.ru, January 12). If the Cossacks are Russian servicemen, then it is unclear why regional authorities should provide support for the Cossacks’ traditions and way of life.
Nevertheless, Kabardino-Balkaria’s governor received Terek Cossack Force ataman Zhuravsky as a government official, since essentially both of them were appointed by President Putin. However, unlike the governor, the exact powers and status of the Cossack chieftain/Russian official are unclear.
At the meeting with the governor of Kabardino-Balkaria, the Terek Cossack chieftain lobbied for the adoption of a special republican law on Cossacks, one that presumably would improve the situation for Cossacks in the republic. Earlier, at the end of 2015, Zhuravsky met with the governor of Dagestan, whom he also asked to adopt a special law on the Cossacks (Kavkazskaya Politika, January 19). Adoption of Cossack laws in all the republics of the North Caucasus appears to be part of the larger strategy of the Terek Cossacks (Kavkazskaya Politika, April 26, 2015).
In Kabardino-Balkaria, however, the Cossacks have particularly expansive plans. Following the example of the neighboring Stavropol region, they have drafted legislation that would allow them to establish control over Kabardino-Balkaria’s Maisky and Prokhladnensky districts. Some Cossack leaders in Kabardino-Balkaria, such as Nikolai Bobrov, object to what they regard as the encroachment of ethnic Kabardins (Circassians) on their land. “In the village of Aleksandrovskaya, a Kabardin already has 2,000 hectares,” Bobrov complained in an interview with Kavkazskaya Politika. The Cossack leader claimed that the land around Aleksandrovskaya should belong to the Cossacks, because back in 1863, Tsar Alexander II bought it from Circassian nobles for the Cossacks. In addition to claiming land rights dating back more than two centuries, the Cossacks in Kabardino-Balkaria want the government to support their militarized self-defense groups, which supposedly uphold law and order in their communities. Some Cossacks complain that their land is gradually being appropriated by Circassians, and the armed self-defense groups are apparently designed to protect them against such encroachment (Kavkazskaya Politika, January 19). These aims of Kabardino-Balkaria’s Cossacks clearly violate Russian laws, which do not endorse redistributing land according to legal measures adopted in the 19th century or ethnic ownership of land. Sensing legal challenges, the Cossacks are using administrative support from Moscow to advance their interests.
It is perhaps even more justified to say that Moscow is using the Cossacks to advance its interests in the North Caucasus. In Kabardino-Balkaria, the emerging situation resembles Russian policy in the South Caucasus and in other Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries. In the past, Russia used Abkhazia and South Ossetia to control the political behavior of the Georgian government. It appears that Moscow would now like to establish Cossack enclaves inside the North Caucasus republics in order to control them. In the case of Kabardino-Balkaria, the Maisky and Prokhladnensky districts are to become strongholds of the Russian state in the republic. Both districts have predominantly ethnic-Russian populations that are likely to support Kremlin policies in the area. Moscow’s support for the Cossacks also indicates that the Russian government does not fully trust the local indigenous elites, despite the fact that Moscow itself handpicks them.
The Russian authorities deliberately keep the Cossack identity blurred, somewhere between an ethnic group and loyal servants of the state. One reason to do that is legal: Russian law does not permit special land preferences for government employees. Ethnic ownership of land is also not permitted legally. However, the government does declare support for traditions and culture of various ethnic groups. In the case of Cossacks, Moscow is willing to use the clause declaring support for ethnic groups particularly vigorously.
The downside of Moscow’s support for ethnic Russians in the North Caucasus is that it is compelling the North Caucasians to become mobilized in response to Kremlin maneuvering with the Cossacks. That is why Moscow, rather than forcing changes, prefers to work behind the scenes and use the clause about “protecting the culture and traditions of ethnic groups” as a pretext for advancing the central government’s interests in the area.