Staunton, November 4 – Aleksandr Khloponin, the Presidential Plenipotentiary for the North Caucasus Federal District, said last week that his “first task” must be to support and rely on the Cossack revival as part of Moscow’s effort to return ethnic Russians to that troubled part of the country.
And while, as Sergey Markedonov makes clear in a new analysis, the Cossack movement of today is best described as “neo-Cossackry,” the history of tensions between the indigenous peoples of that region and the Cossacks who were the shock troops of Russian expansion there makes this a problematic, even dangerous tactic (www.politcom.ru/10977.html).
Khloponin’s plans make Markedonov’s analysis especially timely given that the neo-Cossacks he described are more Russian nationalist and likely to prove more hostile to the non-Russian nationalities of the North Caucasus than were the Cossacks who moved south into that region in the 18th and 19th centuries.
As Markedonov, currently a visiting scholar at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, makes clear, the new Cossacks are not so much a continuation of the older groups but rather a new phenomenon altogether, one that draws on Cossack ideas but that lacks the corporate sense and social conditions in which the pre-1917 Cossacks existed.
The neo-Cossack movement emerged in the early 1990s, Markedonov says, as “a reaction to the growth of ethnic nationalism in the North Caucasus republics under conditions of the crisis and disintegration of the USSR.” As a result, the Kuban and Terek “neo-Cossacks” began “to play the role of a certain counterweight to the ethnocracies being formed there.”
Markedonov details the struggle of revived Cossack units with the non-Russian republics in that region during the early 1990s, struggles that sometimes resulted in violent clashes and deaths, featured calls for the establishment or re-establishment of Cossack territories from imperial times, but ultimately led to no real changes.
Initially, ethnic Russians in the North Caucasus supported the idea of creating a Cossack Republic, with “almost 65 percent” in one poll backing that idea. Several Cossack communities proclaimed such republics, but the Russian authorities were unprepared to support them, preferring instead to rely where possible on the leaders of existing republics.
Although there was a brief uptick in local interest in the creation of a special Cossack territory, the so-called Terek Oblast, at the start of Moscow’s military efforts in Chechnya in 1994 and 1999, no such “’second Transdniestria’” was formed, in large measure because of the rapid outflow of the ethnic Russian population from the North Caucasus.
Over the course of the last decade, Markedonov continues, “the neo-Cossacks as a political project” have more or less disappeared as an issue. One measure of that is that their center has become Stavropol kray which historically was never a center of Cossack activity but rather of “peasant colonization.”
And indicative of this decline in their political prospects, the Moscow analyst say, has been “a change of the political language” that their leaders have employed. “The language of demands [that was common in the early 1990s] has been completely replaced by the language of requests for permission.”
Markedonov suggests that among the other causes for the decline of the Cossack project in the region was the inability of the Cossacks to find “strategic or even tactical allies,” even though some were available because most of their leaders “put ‘purity of blood’ above pragmatism,” costing them support from groups like the Nogays.
At the same time, by the 1990s, “the Russians and Cossacks had ceased to be considered ‘elder brothers’” by the non-Russians. And the Cossacks never learned to use the language of human rights and thus were condemned to be viewed as “revaunchist” and as something “not about the future but about the past.”
Moreover, Markedonov continues, it quickly became apparent that “the process of the Sovietization of the Cossack Russian population of the North Caucasus had been much deeper than among the ‘titular’ ethnic groups,” something that limited their ability to restore the past or even build on it by uniting either with ethnic Russians or with others.
But perhaps most important, the Russian analyst says, “the neo-Cossacks of the North Caucasus did not receive the necessary ‘signals’ from the center.” Moscow was not interested in fully integrating the region into Russian lands, preferring instead to work with when possible the non-Russian ethnocratic regimes.
And that had another consequence: it became obvious to many in the Russian capital that “many leaders of ‘the Cossack project’ were ready to struggle not against the principles of ethnocracy as such but only against ethnocracies that were not ‘theirs.’” Consequently, supporting the Cossacks would create a new problem rather than solve an old one.
It is possible that Khloponin’s remarks represent a shift, but Markedonov suggests that is probably not the case. “Under conditions when North Caucasus policy has been reduced to slogans and toasts, it is not surprising that instead of systemic analysis,” Russian officials like him are saying “the Cossacks will confidently write their own history in the 21st century.”
But at least some Cossacks may see those words as just the signal they have not received in the past, and that could create serious problems in the region -- even if it is not “the signal” that anyone, including Khloponin, thought he was sending by his rather incautious remarks during a Cossack meeting last week.