Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s Push to Use Cossacks in North Caucasus Reflects Center’s Desperation, Historian Says

Paul Goble

Staunton, December 8 – Moscow’s recent efforts to recruit Cossacks to help enforce law and order in the North Caucasus highlights how desperate the situation there now is, given that the Cossacks are not now, in large part because of Moscow’s failure to help, in a position to offer real assistance, according to a review of the situation by a Russian historian.
In an article posted online yesterday, Yury Soshin says that there are far fewer Cossacks who could help provide security than officials like Aleksandr Khloponin, the Presidential plenipotentiary, appears to believe and that some Cossacks see his call now as resembling Stalin’s appeals in the difficult days of 1941 (
Even worse, calls to use the Cossacks in support of the Russian state, Soshin says, could not only generate more anger and opposition among non-Russians in that region given the image the Cossacks have but also lead to more cynicism among the Cossacks about Moscow, further reducing any utility they might have and potentially turning them into an independent force.
At the end of October, Khloponin took part in a celebration of the 20th anniversary in Pyatigorsk of the rebirth of the Terek Cossack Force. At that assembly, Terek Ataman Vasily Bondarevk celebrated the role of the Yermolog 694th Motorized Rifle Brigade consisting of Cossack volunteers in the first post-Soviet Chechen war.
All present applauded, but no one mentioned, Soshin says, that “the formation and military activity of the Yermolog battalion is in essence the single real act [by the Terek Cossacks] over the course of the entire 20 years” of its renewed existence. Nor did they mention that the unit was quickly disbanded “without explanation” just after it was created.
Instead, the participants and speakers acted as if the Terek Cossacks represent a really serious force. Khloponin for his part suggested that “the reborn Terek Cossacks must become a support for peace and stability in the Caucasus” and “an example for everyone in the task of strengthening Russian statehood in the region.”
For that to take place, the plenipotentiary representative acknowledged, it will be “necessary to conduct broadscale organizational work,” something that Khloponin said was currently at an “unsatisfactory” level. As a result, he said, there are few Cossacks in local governments, both because of opposition from them and because of a lack of initiative.
Khloponin promised to change both, and his ideas in that regard were supported by other Russian officials, including Aleksandr Beglov, chairman of the Cossack Affairs Council in the Presidential Administration who read greetings from President Dmitry Medvedev, and Stavropol Governor Valery Gayevsky.
Two weeks later, Soshin continues, these ideas were reiterated at a Cossack meeting in Kabardino-Balkaria, but neither meeting, the historian insists, moved beyond declarative language or changed the situation of the Cossacks, whom Moscow would like to use at no cost to itself but who are not in a position to do much at least not yet.
Moscow faces a terrible dilemma: “the situation in the North Caucasus Federal District is close to a catastrophe.” Indeed, as far as Khloponin is concerned, “the situation is not under his control.” But as far as the Cossacks are concerned, “they have heard many promises,” but they have not seen much action from the Russian powers that be.
And that is worrisome, Soshin says, because “the Terek Cossacks are dying.” In some places which were Cossack areas, there are no Cossacks left, and in others, they have lost all sense of who and what they are. At best, they take part in cultural activities but certainly not serious military ones.
If one takes Stavropol kray as an example, the historian points out, “neither the powers that be nor the Cossacks are able to block the spread of terrorism and the de-russificaiton of the south eastern districts of the kray.” Nor is either in a position to restore “elementary order” for the people there.
Instead, Soshin says, “the population of the kray again as before the last Chechen war is beginning to life in fear,” sensing that the powers that be are “throwing [them] under the power of Kadyrov,” whatever they declare in public.
In this situation, what do the powers that be “want from the Cossacks?” Military support? If so, he says, they will have to do more than allow Cossack units to exist for more than two months which was all the Yermolov battalion was allowed in 1995 and provide support and training for Cossack officers and men.
Moscow has done that for the Chechens but not the Cossacks, Soshin says, and the center shows no sign of actually changing, whatever it says. And if the Russian powers that be hope for more from the Cossacks, then they need to address “a number of questions,” none of which have been answered as of now.
What are the Cossacks? What should their units do? What should be the relationship of Cossack units to regular Russian military formations? And who should control their specific actions and defend the Cossacks against what Soshin calls “the human rights hysteria” they often encounter.
And Soshin concludes with these words: there are many questions, but the basic conclusion is the following: the situation in the North Caucasus is getting worse with each passing week. If not now, then soon it will be possible to speak about the agony [of Russian power there].”
That is why the powers that be have been ‘appealing to the Cossacks and attempting to use them in order to ‘stabilize’ the situation.” But such appeals, the Russian historian says, are not inspiring. Instead, they recall, as one participant in the Pyatigorsk meeting put it, the appeals Stalin made to Russians when Hitler’s forces were pushing back the Soviet army.

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