Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Cossack Old Believers in Kazakhstan Plan to Exchange Russian Citizenship for Belarusian to Protest Moscow’s Policies

Paul Goble

Vienna, March 10 – More than 500 Cossack Old Believers have announced plans to surrender their Russian citizenship and seek Belarusian citizenship instead in order to protest Moscow’s failure to live up to its promises to provide them with the support they need to resettle in rural Cossack communities in Tomsk oblast.
According to’s Sofia Mikitik, citing a report by Sergey Britvin, a journalist who works with the Independent Slavic Correspondent Center, the Russian government in early 2008 had approved their resettlement in the Asinovsk district of that oblast but has now reneged on its promises (
A small group of Cossack Old Believers from Kazakhstan visited Tomsk but after waiting months for promised housing and being forced to live in “half-destroyed” buildings, they returned. Angered by that betrayal, they and their fellow Cossacks last month “decided to give up their Russian citizenship” but possibly move to somewhere in Siberia.
Their actions, while apparently about only a tiny group, nonetheless call attention to three larger issues: the failure of Moscow’s repatriation effort, the worsening relationship between President Dmitry Medvedev, and the hostility of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church to the Old Believers.
Despite the hopes of many in Moscow, the Russian government’s efforts to attract ethnic Russians and Russian speakers from former Soviet republics has now more or less failed, with the numbers of people willing to make that move remaining microscopically small and Moscow’s support for the program continuing to fall.
Moreover, despite the hopes of many Cossacks that the Russian powers that be will look to them as adjunct supporters of its efforts to enforce law and order and hold the periphery, President Medvedev has been far less supportive of Cossack demands than either of his predecessors.
Not only did the Kremlin leader last month disband many of the so-called “Cossack” units that had been set up in the Russian military, but he also has not been willing to make use of these often irregular forces in places like the North Caucasus as many Russian nationalists in the force structures have urged (
And the fact that the Russian government has failed to live up to its promises to support this group of Old Believer Cossacks likely reflects the increasing influence of Patriarch Kirill and those in the Russian Orthodox Church who have anything but a positive view of this group that many hierarchs continue to refer to as “schismatics.”
But beyond those immediate political issues in this case, there is a larger one: the relative weakness of ethnic identity among those most people in Moscow in the West are inclined to include as members of the ethnic Russian nation. Not only do the Cossacks increasingly view themselves as distinct, but they appear willing to make that clear in this most interesting way.
By choosing to give up Russian citizenship and to take Belarusian passports even though they hope to move to Siberia, the Cossack Old Believers of Kazakhstan are showing that the boundaries both internal and external of Russian ethno-national identity are fraying in yet another way – and that the existence of other Slavic states is playing a role.
To the extent that Moscow officials focus on that reality, the Russian powers that be may try to force both Minsk and Kyiv not to agree to accept such people as citizens of Belarus and Ukraine. But if it is forced to take that step, Moscow will thus be acknowledging and to a bigger audience the extent of problems with Russian national identity.

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