BACKGROUND: At a rally of several thousand Terek Cossacks in the Stavropol region on July 8, the participants passed an unusually strongly worded resolution addressed to Russia’s president Vladimir Putin. In the document, the Terek Cossacks demanded that the government hand over to them highly valuable assets in the North Caucasus to support the process of the rebirth of the Cossacks and to strengthen Russia’s southern frontier. The list included a famous brandy factory in the city of Kizlyar, Dagestan; 100,000 hectares of arable land; quotas for fishing on the Caspian Sea, famous for its sturgeon and black caviar; control over recreational infrastructure in the region’s resort areas; and a number of other benefits. In addition, the petitioners asked the government to finance Cossack centers in the North Caucasian republics and the Stavropol region. The list included nearly all high liquidity assets of the region.
Even staunch supporters of the Cossacks were astonished by the boldness of these property claims. Some observers called the Terek Cossacks’ resolution “an ultimatum to Moscow.” Mikhail Markelov a member of the Russian parliament that oversaw domestic political affairs including the Cossack issue in the recent past, called the Cossacks’ demands “speculative” and “opportunistic.” On July 10, the authorities indicted one of the Cossack leaders in a fraud case that can be perceived as raising a red flag by Moscow to moderate the aspirations of Cossack leaders. Also in July an information campaign ensued in the Russian media, following allegations of a rape of a Cossack man by a man of Dagestani ethnicity in the Stavropol region. The media constantly portrays ethnic Russians as being on the defensive on “their own territory.” Russian observers and authorities rarely criticize the Cossacks in the North Caucasus, also referred to as Terek Cossacks after the Terek River that crosses a large part of the region from Kabardino-Balkaria in the west to Dagestan in the east. Normally, Russian government officials emphasize the important role of the Cossacks in preserving a Russian presence in this volatile and separatist-minded region. The North Caucasian republics have witnessed a persistent trend of migratory outflow of ethnic Russians and a rapid increase in the share of the indigenous population across the region since the 1970s.
Moreover, North Caucasians started to “encroach” on the nearby Russian-majority regions of Stavropol and Krasnodar. Russian analysts and statesmen consider the eastern areas of the Stavropol region, bordering Dagestan and Chechnya, as a territory particularly vulnerable to the large-scale inflow of North Caucasians. Hence, regional and central authorities have long favored employing Cossacks to protect what is considered to be the land of Russia proper. Russian laws designed to prop up the Cossacks started to appear in 1990s. The problem of “protecting” ethnic Russian regions from the North Caucasians has been that both ethnic Russians and North Caucasians technically have the same rights as Russian citizens and therefore both have a nominal right to settle wherever they want on Russian territory.
In light of these legal constraints, the Cossacks came in handily to bypass them and seek to contain and reverse the demographic pressure from the North Caucasus. In August 2012, the governor of the Krasnodar region, Alexander Tkachyov unveiled a scandalous plan to use the Cossacks to thwart the influx of ethnic North Caucasians into the region. Tkachyov explained the mechanism of using the Cossacks as a militia, financed by the state and directly instructed to target and harass certain individuals on an ethnic basis. Unlike the police, the Cossacks could conduct ethnic profiling and therefore put pressure on the non-Russian citizens of Russia to prevent their settlement in Krasnodar region.
IMPLICATIONS: The empowerment of the Cossacks by the government opened up a “can of worms” in the already tense, ethnically heterogeneous region of the North Caucasus. Moscow’s tacit or open endorsement of Cossacks and regular complaints about a decreasing ethnic Russian share of the population in the North Caucasus ostensibly divide Russia’s population into more and less desirable citizens.
Cossacks may eventually pose a challenge to Moscow itself, if they acquire political weight. This is probably the strongest factor that still holds back efforts by the Russian government to promote Cossacks as the “defenders” of the Russian state in the North Caucasus and border areas. In January 2013, governor Tkachyov announced that he decided to grant Cossack patrols the right to carry assault weapons. Thus, Krasnodar’s governor acquired his own little army. In Stavropol region, the Cossacks replaced the police as the guards of the regional government’s buildings.
Apparently, as the Russian government becomes more dependent on the Cossacks to defend what they regard as Russia’s “national interests,” the Cossacks predictably increase their demands and their political clout. Russia’s national interests in such a setting increasingly resemble the interests of ethnic Russians. The central government’s reliance on the Cossacks may naturally translate into conflicts between the indigenous population of the North Caucasus and the Cossacks.
Street clashes between Cossack patrols and North Caucasians have become very common in the Stavropol region. One such clash in December 2012 resulted in the killing of a Cossack by an ethnic Chechen in the city of Nevinnomyssk in the Stavropol region. It took the authorities weeks and the detention of dozens of protesters to suppress an uprising of ethnic Russians’ in the city. Ethnic Russians of the Stavropol region set up a movement to separate their region from the North Caucasian Federal District of which it is a part. Stavropol is the only predominantly ethnic Russian region that is part of the North Caucasian Federal District. Russian nationalists demanded from the government to install migration controls to thwart uncontrolled migration from the North Caucasus to the region. Interestingly, Cossacks were divided over the issue; some Cossacks that are close to the government spoke against the Russian nationalists, but many were apparently quite supportive of the nationalists’ cause.
Since the Russian government openly sides with the Cossacks over many important issues, republican governments in the North Caucasian republics will inevitably mirror the same behavior. As the governors of the Stavropol and Krasnodar regions have expressed their support for Cossacks’ claims, nationalism is bound to grow in the North Caucasian republics too. Hence, the situation in the North Caucasus is gradually drifting to square one, the start of 1990s, when ethnic groups became powerful political actors in the region. Yet, there is a major difference between the current situation in the North Caucasus and the 1990s. Unlike ethnic conflicts among North Caucasians at the time, the current ethnic tension in the region is dominated by the divide between ethnic Russian regions on the one side and ethnic North Caucasian regions on the other. Russian separatism in the 2010s may prove to be a far greater threat to Moscow’s rule in the North Caucasus than the Chechen separatism of 1990s.
CONCLUSIONS: The prominence of the Cossack issue, and the Russian government’s concerns about changes in the ethnic makeup of the country’s south, signify the failure of building a civic Russian nation. Ironically, having fought two bloody wars against separatists in Chechnya, Moscow is now either promoting the dividing lines between the North Caucasus and the rest of the Russian Federation or is unable to resist popular pressure from ethnic Russians. Having overpowered the small Chechen people, Moscow has appeared so far to be unable to contain the demographic pressure of the North Caucasian peoples, improve demographic indicators among ethnic Russians or remove mutual suspicions and hostilities between the different ethnic groups that make up the country. The Soviet era slogans of “people’s friendship” are no longer applicable, while no similar ideology for holding the country together has been introduced.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Valeriy Dzutsev is a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at Jamestown Foundation and Doctoral Student in Political Science at Arizona State University.