Russian Government Tries to Bolster Cossack Groups in the North Caucasus

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 37


After losing the support of ethnic Russians who were once abundantly present in the republics of the North Caucasus (Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia), Moscow is constantly looking for ways to keep ethnic Russians in this part of the country. The pro-Moscow regional authorities have completely failed to fulfill the federal program for recruiting ethnic Russian to live the North Caucasus despite lavish federal financing of the program (, April 5, 2012).

The initial idea was to resettle 50,000 Russian families in the North Caucasus every year, first of all in the republics that experienced the greatest exodus of ethnic Russians—Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan (, March 23, 2012). The Russian federal authorities evidently did not realize what was going on in the regions. Prior to trying to encourage Russians to resettle in the North Caucasus and other regions of Russia, Moscow had to try to stop the ongoing exodus of Russians from the region. The results of the resettlement program were not simply unsatisfactory—they were catastrophic, since Russians could not even think about resettling in these areas of ceaselessly high tension. In the end, Moscow decided to reanimate the local decaying Cossack organizations, which are little more than folklore groups in the republics.

The authorities’ interference in the life of the Terek Cossacks was immediately recognizable by the way local atamans (Cossack chieftains) were elected. Against the statutes and customs of the Cossacks, the authorities assigned atamans to each village and area. The Terek Cossack Military is stationed in Stavropol Region, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Chechnya and Dagestan, and had 35,000 members five years ago (, April 18, 2010). It is unlikely that its membership increased during the past several years. By comparison, exactly one century ago, the Terek Cossack Military numbered 255,000 people and, together with ethnic Russians, comprised 40 percent of the total population of the entire North Caucasus (Anton Ivanovich Denikin, Essays of the Russian Time of Troubles, Vol. 4, Thus, the Cossacks’ numbers have decreased nearly ten-fold at the same time as the number of North Caucasians has increased about ten-fold.

To legitimately elect the Terek Cossack Military’s ataman, the Cossacks must hold elections in the Terek-Sunzha Cossack Society (Chechnya) and the Kizlyar Cossack Society (Dagestan). Denis Dupenko became the new ataman of Sunzha Cossack society in Chechnya. Guests from the Kizlyar Cossack Society, representatives of the administration of the governor and the government of the Chechen Republic and municipal officials took part in the elections (, February 21).

The former ataman of the Sunzha Cossacks did not take part in the elections because the newly-elected ataman is not even a Cossack, and the former ataman decided to protest the election procedure to show that it was nothing more than a farcical act staged by the government (, February 21). The background of the newly-elected Cossack chieftain will make him less popular among the Cossacks in this society. The strong side of the new ataman is the fact that the Kremlin is behind him, which will allow him to stay afloat for some time. To thwart possible protests by the older Cossacks against candidates promoted by the government, a police unit was stationed near the building where the elections were held (, February 24).

The ataman elections were just as interesting in Kizlyar Cossack society in Dagestan. The former ataman of Kizlyar society, Nikolai Spirin, resigned after two meetings with the governor of Dagestan, Ramazan Abdulatipov. Officials must have explained to Spirin that he should not have expected democratic elections and had to resign from his position voluntarily and quietly, as everything had been decided in Moscow. Valentin Ivanov was elected the new ataman in Kizlyar. Unlike the ataman of Sunzha district, Ivanov is a local Cossack and fairly well known in the republics of the North Caucasus since he had served in the Ministry of Interior and was promoted to the post of Ingushetia’s deputy interior minister before leaving service (, February 20). Moscow’s choice of ataman in Kizlyar is understandable, because a former interior ministry official will never disobey orders from Moscow.

The next step is to hold elections in the Terek Military Cossack Society. In order to do that, a Cossack rally is scheduled to take place on April 25. Initially, the rally was planned to take place on February 21 (, February 16). It appears that the primary candidate for the position has been selected against all statutes and norms of Cossack societies. The candidacy of Mikhail Seredenko for the position of ataman was advanced along with the other candidacies proposed according to the Cossacks’ statutes. This means that Moscow is backing Seredenko. If so, the elections will be a formality. If Seredenko becomes the ataman of the Terek Cossacks, it will be quite a turn, since he is known in the Stavropol region for having openly Russian nationalistic views. Seredenko was the head of the Stavropol branch of the Congress of Russian Communities, an organization set up by Dmitry Rogozin.

By interfering in Cossack affairs, the Russian federal authorities violate Cossack rights, sometimes even without knowing the situation on the ground. Having assumed control over the atamans, Moscow wants to put a stop to the scandals that have been tied to the Cossacks in the North Caucasus in the past decades. The pitfall of this approach is that Moscow’s tight control may prompt some Cossacks to look for forces to counterbalance government appointees, which will stall the activities of the government-sponsored Cossack leaders. Moscow consciously decided to increase its control over the Cossacks in order to shore up the few remaining Cossack forces in the republics of the North Caucasus. However, the red line has been crossed, and in such republics as Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan, the Cossacks are likely to simply live out their remaining days.