Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Window on Eurasia: A Cossack Geography for Russia?

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 13 – The lands of Russia’s Cossack communities never corresponded to the political divisions of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union, and they do not match those of the Russian Federation now. But one analyst argues that Moscow should consider “a Cossack map” as it redraws the borders of federal subjects.
While most will view such a Cossack geography as an “archaic” survival of the past, Vasiliy Baltin suggests that it could prefigure the future map of Russia itself and help solve the problems of the “unrecognized” republics of Abkhazia, South Osetia, and Transdniestria (
On the one hand, the traditional Cossack “forces” of the Don, Kuban, and Terek spread across not only a number of Russian oblasts that the Kremlin may want to combine, but on the other, they also lie across the borders between Russia and the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia and could help Moscow to advance its interests.
Several years ago, Baltin says, it appeared to the Cossacks that their time had come. President Vladimir Putin signed off on the creation of a Cossack force (“voiska”) in central Russia, somewhere Cossacks had never had a community in the past. And the Russian leader promised to prepare a law on Cossack state service.
Putin never dispatched such legislation to the Duma, the Russian analyst notes, but despite that, the Cossacks have had some successes that are encouraging them to press their case anew. First, last year, they succeeded in creating a Union of Cossacks of Russia and Abroad, whose leaders frequently meet with senior Russian officials.
Second, they staged an action in Crimea that they believe “successfully” blocked the efforts of NATO and Kyiv to conduct military maneuvers there. And third, they have taken very public positions on environmental issues, the “unrecognized” republics where many of them live, and on Serbia, with which they feel a particular kinship.
In May of this year, Baltin continues, the Cossacks convened in Moscow the second congress of the Union of Cossacks of Russia and Abroad, a meeting to which both Putin and Patriarch Aleksii II sent enthusiastic messages of support. And Cossacks stressed that ever more people are declaring “Cossack” to be their ethnic identity.
But earlier this month, Russia’s Cossacks suffered another setback. When they organized a demonstration in Ukraine’s Crimea to underscore that region’s ties to Russia, local officials treated them more as an ethnographic curiosity than a serious political force.
Now, with Baltin’s article, the Cossacks of Russia are trying another approach to raise their status and gain additional support from the Kremlin: putting themselves forward as the basis for a new map of the Russian Federation in which they rather than anyone or anything else would be the basis for the consolidation of regions.
And Baltin warns that Moscow would be making a big mistake to ignore the Cossack dimension of Russia’s map. In the Don, he says, the Russian and Cossack maps already correspond. And everywhere else, “from the Terek to Siberia,” Cossacks already stand guard to prevent the disintegration of the country and the rise of extremism.
Many people in Russia and the West are certain to view the Cossacks less as a solution to these problems than as a potential threat in and of themselves. But it is entirely possible that in at least some parts of the Russian Federation, “a Cossack geography” could play a role in Putin’s efforts to amalgamate the country’s regions.

No comments: