Mikhail Vederinkov, the presidential plenipotentiary for the North Caucasus Federal District, told a meeting of senior Cossack officials that they must clear any candidates for the position of ataman (chieftain) with him in advance or face charges that they are agents of the US Department of State (Gorodskoitelegraf.ru, April 14). Vederinkov said that “we have information” about Cossack-Washington links and will use it unless he is obeyed. This charge has infuriated the Cossacks and threatens to undermine their cooperation with the state and, thus, the Russian presence in the North Caucasus (Pan.ru, April 15).
If Vederinkov really had evidence of illegal activities, he would, presumably, be legally bound to turn such information over to competent authorities rather than suggest he will hold it over the Cossacks and take that step only if they fail to fall in line with his orders. But at the same time, although his words were outrageous, one can understand three reasons why the presidential plenipotentiary might have uttered them.
First, as was common during Soviet times under dictator Joseph Stalin, and is becoming true again under President Vladimir Putin, Russians are increasingly being subjected to “charges du jour.” That is, Russian officials make accusations against individuals not based on any concrete evidence, but rather because those are the “popular” charges that are being flung about at that period in time. Vederinkov undoubtedly thought he could intimidate his listeners by suggesting the kinds of criminal charges that have recently been frequently leveled against others in Russia. However, he appears to have misjudged his audience.
Second, there is a widely differing plethora of Cossack organizations in Russia, many of which arose and grew like weeds in the 1990s. In Stavropol alone, for example, these include the Stavropol Cossack Force of the Union of Cossacks of Russia, the Caucasus Cossack Line, the Terek Cossack Force, as well as Cossacks with ties to Abkhazia and even Ukraine. In Stavropol, there is even a village of Ukrainian Cossacks with its own ataman, a certain V. Oleynikov. Moscow, especially under Putin, wants a single vertical for the Cossacks just as it does for all other groups with which it is prepared to cooperate. Consequently, Vederinkov’s threat, albeit clumsy and heavy-handed, is part of the general Russian government effort to create a single hierarchy for when Moscow wants to deploy the Cossacks for its purposes rather than allowing the Cossack organizations to act on behalf of their own members.
And third—and this is what the Cossacks themselves suspect—Vederinkov is under pressure to impose order because Moscow has put the Cossacks under the new Agency for Nationality Affairs (see EDM, April 6). The presidential plenipotentiary (polpred) knows that Moscow will be examining all groups and especially those like the Cossacks in the North Caucasus who receive significant budgetary funds. The Russian government has been using Cossack units as adjunct militia units, so there is a great deal of money being given to this or that Cossack “stanitsa” or “host.”
But as Mariya Blokhina of Polit.ru points out in her commentary about Vederinkov’s statement and the reaction of the Cossacks, it is quite possible that the North Caucasus Federal District plenipotentiary has gone too far. “Accusations of ties with the US State Department,” she points out, “are traditionally directed against critics of the authorities from among the political opposition or civil society,” such as happened when the Kremlin suggested that Yabloko and other opposition parties were cooperating with the United States when they conducted demonstrations last fall against the Kremlin’s policy in Ukraine (Polit.ru, April 19).
But “sometimes these accusations backfire against those who make them,” she continues; and she gives as an example what happened when Moscow TV host Dmitry Kiselyev began to attack the State Department on a constant basis. In response, then–US ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, put out a tweet noting that Kiselyev, for all his bluster against the State Department, had in fact been a participant in one of its programs, visiting the US on a tour for which all his expenses were paid by the institution he was denouncing (Newsru.com, March 21, 2014).
Vederinkov’s situation is different but, quite possibly, more serious. While Kiselyov may have been embarrassed by McFaul’s tweet, the Cossacks in the North Caucasus are furious. And it seems likely that at least some of them will refuse to be as cooperative with the Russian authorities as they have been up to now. That will weaken Moscow’s hand in the North Caucasus and, almost certainly, lead to more Russian flight given that ethnic Russians there often view the Cossacks as their main defenders.
At the very least, tensions between the polpred and the Cossacks are heating up, pointing to regime-orchestrated changes in the leadership of the Cossacks and to various kinds of Cossack resistance that Moscow will find hard to stomach.