North Caucasus Cossacks are Also Victims of Moscow’s Policies in the Region

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 134

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, right, meets with Cossack leaders in March 2009.

The incendiary idea of abolishing the republics of North Caucasus resurfaces in the Terek Cossacks’ demands as a way of dealing with regional problems, but Moscow’s constraints still persist. Terek Cossack army’s ataman Mikhail Inkavtsov attacked North Caucasus republics, accusing the ethnic republics of being economically deficient and corrupt. The Terek Cossack atamans’ council demanded "crisis managers" to be introduced in the republics of the North Caucasus and historic Terek oblast be restored in their place (Gazeta Yuga, July 9). At the atamans’ council on July 7 it was decided that the Cossacks will submit a formal proposal to the Russian State’s Duma on the need to create Terek oblast, incorporating Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Kabardin-Balkaria and part of Stavropol region, while Adygea and Karachai-Cherkessia are to be merged with Krasnodar region (Caucasian Knot, July 14).

The idea of abolishing ethnic republics in Russia and especially those in the North Caucasus is not new, and since the 1990’s has kept re-emerging. Russian nationalist-democrat Anatoly Sobchak, regarded by some observers as the godfather of Russia’s ruler Vladimir Putin was a prominent herald of abolishing the political autonomies in Russia, calling them Stalin’s inventions. More recently Alexander Torshin, the deputy head of the Russia’s Federation Council stated that the autonomies should be abolished to avoid ethnic conflicts, also expressing his regret that Stalin did not abolish them immediately after the Second World War (Ekho Moskvy Radio, January 4, 2008).

Cossacks are habitually used to advance Moscow’s security interests in the region, being often presented as Moscow’s vanguards (North Caucasus Weekly, April 10, 2008). Russian security services’ hand behind the attempt to play the Cossack card is barely disguised. Ataman Inkavtsov besides heading the Terek Cossacks, is also a member of the supreme council of the so-called Eurasian Movement of Russia. Moreover, the Cossacks and the Eurasians came to an agreement to work alongside to advance their mutual interests (Eurasian Youth Website, February 18). The Eurasian Movement of Russia is directed by the well-known ideologue of Russian greatness Alexander Dugin. Dugin has clear support among the Russian security services, which manifests itself for instance, in the fact that he is entrusted with the occasional lecturing of FSB officers in the regions of the North Caucasus.

Terek Cossacks, living in the republics of North Caucasus, with the exception of Adygea, that is considered to be part of Kuban Cossack District, periodically complain to Moscow. Most recently, the Vladikavkaz Cossacks adopted a resolution recounting their problems in North Ossetia, such as crimes against the Cossacks that are not investigated, loss of agricultural lands, and other grievances. The Vladikavkaz Cossacks threatened, that if the authorities in Moscow do not hear them and do not stop the process of what they described as the "slow genocide" of the Cossack people then they will leave the region en masse (Russian People’s Union website, June 4).

While decrying the Russian-speaking population’s demographic and politically significant decline in the North Caucasus, that Moscow has not been able to reverse so far, the Cossacks often omit the fact that Moscow itself is perhaps the primary contributor to their problems. Firstly, Moscow started two bloody wars in Chechnya and seems to have unsettled the whole region of the North Caucasus by now, secondly, Moscow installed local regimes of strong men that have been allowed to do almost anything they want to, which inevitably created rings of corrupt clans and a myriad of related problems. The Cossacks and ethnic Russians as a whole fell victim to this mismanagement, as did the other peoples living in the region.

It is estimated, that ethnic Russian population in the North Caucasian republics in the period between the two censuses of 1989 and 2002 declined by 31 percent from 1.3 million to 0.9 million, while the Caucasians’ population grew by 51 percent from 3.5 million to 5.3 million (Valery Tishkov’s website,

The glaring demographic problems of the Russian people are aggravated in the North Caucasus by civil unrest, instability, poverty and rigid political regimes, that are ironically supported by Moscow itself. Thus, even though Moscow is trying to support the Cossacks in order to ensure, the North Caucasus does not become progressively de-Russified and is keen on eliminating ethnicity based autonomies, there are political, economic and demographic factors that cannot be alleviated by simply abolishing the political units of the North Caucasus.

The local elites are granted a large degree of impunity over their actions in return for their loyalty and support. The most extreme example of this informal concordance is the relationship between Ramzan Kadyrov, president of Chechnya and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. This impunity is accompanied by significant government budgetary injections from Moscow, estimated at about $3 billion per year for all the North Caucasian republics.

A relatively non-adversarial way of doing away with the autonomies was invented in 2004 with the policy of regional enlargement. It was relatively easy to merge several ethnic minorities into predominantly Russian regions in scarcely populated Siberia and Russian Far East region, but when it came to the North Caucasus, it broke down severely in the case of Adygea.

External factors, like Moscow’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in August 2008 also contribute to the constraints, that Moscow has to abolish the North Caucasus republics. The previous two are much worse equipped even for economic survival, than most of the North Caucasus republics. So it would be politically hard to explain for Moscow, why it recognized the Georgian breakaway territories, while it abolishes much bigger and more viable autonomies domestically.

At the same time the economic crisis that is taking its toll on Russia and its ability to provide funds for the North Caucasus and its elites, may trigger changes in regional governance. Combined with the current low scale civil war that is occurring in some of the republics, the worsening economic situation is likely to increase the unpredictability of the situation as well as Moscow’s behavior in its policies toward the region, including making moves that are not well thought through, such as abolishing the North Caucasus republics.