BACKGROUND: In the 2012, the creation of Cossack militias could be easily attributed to security challenges during the Olympic Games. However, developments in the last two years give reasons to believe that the reappearance of Cossacks in the region is linked more to developments in Makhachkala (Dagestan) than to Sochi and is more than simply a temporary pre-Olympic measure.
Firstly, the amount of projects linked to the Cossacks in the Caucasus exceeded the local needs of pre-Olympic Sochi. In March 2013, following the example of Krasnodar, the Mayor of neighboring Stavropol Krai, Valery Zerenkovand, presented a plan to grant legal status to the existing Cossack patrols, infamous for various incidents with Caucasian newcomers. By September 2013, the state funded Cossacks already patrolled half of the Krai. On a federal level, authorities launched a series of projects such as the establishment of new Cossack cadet schools to supplement the thirty already in existence.
The Kremlin also plans to create four new, solely Cossack brigades within the Russian army, and as the Chief of General Staff of the Armed Forces Nikolai Makarov stated, some of them could be mounted in observance of tradition. In the context of these calls for resettling Cossack families to the North Caucasus, it appears that the Cossacks are expected to preserve the Slavic presence in the region rather than just prevent Circassian demonstrations in Olympic Sochi.
The Kremlin has in the last two decades adopted a significant number of bills that officially support Cossack movements, with the aim of taming the well organized and often radical Cossacks rather than support their rise. In the early 1990s, the activities of Cossacks ranged from the establishment of “the Union of Cossacks of Russia” to the creation of several illegal militant groups, open demands for the creation of Cossack republics and revolts in South Russia during the late perestroika period. The apparent recent U-turn in well-established policies toward Cossacks and acceptance of the risks linked to their support can hardly be explained simply by the Sochi Olympic Games.
Taking a closer look at both the scope of Kremlin-backed plans for the development of Cossack activities in South Russia, and the simple fact that the state which has sought to suppress Cossack organizations now supports them implies that the roots of the “Cossack revival” have had little to do with the Olympic Games.
IMPLICATIONS: The rise of the Cossacks is better explained by two factors, namely the outflow of the Slavic population from the North Caucasus and their replacement by native Caucasians, and the failure of attempts to apply tools of soft power in Dagestan during Magomedov’s presidency.
Stavropol Krai neatly illustrates, on a small scale, the processes that are occurring throughout the whole Northern Caucasus. Stavropol, which has a predominantly Slavic population of 2.8 million, borders Dagestan to the Southeast with a population of similar size, around 2.9 million people of Caucasian origin. However, while the population of Stavropol Krai increased by 2 percent between 2002 and 2010 (including immigration from Dagestan), Dagestan’s population grew by 16 percent in the same period, an issue of serious concern to the Kremlin. As a result, not only traditional Cossack and Slavic areas of Dagestan around Kizlyar have come under the pressure of "Caucasian re-colonization," but lines of compact Dagestani settlements have formed also in some regions of southern Stavropol Krai over the last two decades. The earlier attempts by the Stavropol government to repatriate some Dagestani newcomers back to Dagestan, coupled with the tightening of laws regulating migration to Russia and between its regions, adopted by the Russian Duma in January 2013, clearly demonstrate the Kremlin’s concerns over the changing ethnic map of South Russia.
Swift developments have also taken place in Makhachkala, where the short experiment to apply soft power in Dagestan, represented by a policy of open dialogue with non-militant Salafists and the Commission for the Adaption of Former Insurgents, ended after Magomedov’s resignation in January 2013. On a regional level, this policy represented an attempt by the Kremlin to address local socio-economic difficulties through the development of local tourist infrastructure. This project, headed by Achmed Bialov (a close associate of Magomedov), seemed to go hand in hand with developments in Makhachkala.
Though possibly steps in the right direction, neither could bring stability to the volatile region without a liberalization of local conditions. Former insurgents did not register with the commission for adaptation as there was no proper legal framework ensuring their safety. Opening a dialogue with the Salafists could not prevent local security forces from kidnapping local – often secular – residents for ransom, thus initiating a circle of blood feud, which significantly swelled the ranks of the insurgents through new recruits. Finally, no improvement of the local socioeconomic situation is foreseeable, since the local population lacks the ability to legally oust the Moscow backed, clan-based, ruling elites that siphon off money from similar state projects.
It seems that the Russian government has realized that none of these policies would be effective without a liberalization of the political situation in the region. Yet the democratization of the region, which would break the symbiotic bond between the Kremlin and local elites, would endanger the federal government's control and is therefore not a valid choice for Putin’s administration. This was illustrated through the adoption of indirect elections of Heads of Republics, which was probably specially designed for the North Caucasus.
Putin’s administration appears to count on the Chechenization of problematic republics, which may help suppress the symptoms of instability, but ultimately this policy will not address its roots. Therefore, after a short and unsuccessful flirtation with soft power, the rising anti-Caucasian sentiment in Russian society demands decisive action rather than slow and expansive reform, and the Kremlin is therefore returning to the old policy of crushing any resistance by crude force. Current developments suggest that armed Cossack groups are becoming the newest innovation of this policy.
CONCLUSIONS: The Kremlin’s flirtation with the Cossacks as a repressive colonizing tool, to tame the turbulent North Caucasus and to delimit the changes to its ethnic map, seems to signal an awareness of its inability to address the roots of regional instability. There are, however, two main reasons to believe that a full adoption of this pseudo-colonization policy risks triggering increased instability. First, the traditional relationship between Cossacks and Mountaineers is characterized by a significant level of mutual distrust, even without state interference. As Cossacks, backed by the Kremlin, become more self-confident, conflicts with locals will become much more frequent, possibly increasing the non-Slavic population’s alienation from Moscow even further.
Second, a frequently overlooked problem is the independence of the Cossacks themselves. Although the Kremlin's official policy and the traditional worldview of the Cossacks are currently consistent, the Cossacks have not turned into Moscow's servants. They maintain their ability to self-organize and are prepared to openly oppose the government if needed. Such cases have been rare so far, but the Cossacks present a well organized, dynamic and active force that nobody can guarantee will remain under the full control of the government when unleashed. Therefore, the Kremlin’s decision to cut the Gordian knot of instability in the Caucasus through Cossack shashka may yet have an unpredictable aftermath.
AUTHOR'S BIO: Tomáš Baranec is a graduate of Charles University in Prague. His research interests include nationalism and factors of ethnic conflicts and separatism in the Caucasus. He currently lives in Georgia where he continues his field research into current separatist movements in the region and monitors the situation on the South Ossetian Administrative Boundary Line.