Champions of chauvinism join the security apparatus
While the colonization of America gave birth to the mythical cowboy, the Russian Empire’s closest equivalent are the Cossacks. Starting as loose bands which for various reasons settled in the periphery of the Empire, they developed into military units and outpost communities. As they largely sided with the Whites in the revolution they were persecuted by the Soviet regime, but were reinstated during the Yeltsin years to augment law enforcement as well as border guards. However, as times have changed, the new Cossacks have adapted to the realities of post-Soviet Russia and have become opaque but influential entities with tentacles stretching into business as well as politics. During the nineties the Don and Kuban Cossacks became infamous for participating as volunteers in a number of conflicts, including Bosnia, Trans-Dniestr(1) and Abkhazia.(2) Most importantly, racism against indigenous Caucasians, the historical arch-enemies of the Cossacks, radiate through the mafia-like structure(3) of contemporary Cossacks, yet the Kremlin has now by law incorporated the Cossacks in the security structures.
Krasnodar (Kuban Cossacks) – Harassing non-Russians and non-Orthodox
Meshkhetian Turks having resettled from Krasnodar to Tucson, Arizona, claim having been harassed by Cossacks. "If we grow our own vegetables or food, we could not sell them. . . The Cossacks had their own stores and would not let us sell," Akhmed Aslanov, one of the refugees, told a reporter from the Tucson Citizen.(4) The Washington Post revealed that, Aslanov is only one of 5 000 Meskhetian Turks who have resettled in the US this past year as the Cossacks are spearheading a campaign of “soft ethnic cleansing,” according to Alexander Osipov, an analyst at the Institute for Humanities and Political Studies in Moscow. In the same article, Sarvar Tedorov, a community leader from Varenikovskaya states; “How can Putin make police out of people who have no respect for the law?. . . Is he completely blind? They break into our houses, even during prayer. They humiliate us and call us names. The beatings are regular.”(5) Recent reports also indicate Cossacks have threatened British journalists attempting to document the plight of the Meshkhetian Turks(6) as well as the local Hare Krishna.(7) A Yerevan paper reported that Armenians in the Krasnodar territory also are targeted by the Cossacks and that the actions are encouraged by local authorities.(8)
Rostov (Don Cossacks) – Hand in hand with the authorities
The leader of the Don Cossacks, Viktor Vodolatski, also serves as Vice Governor of Rostov oblast and stated in August that his Cossacks could restore order and “quickly teach the new arrivals” how to behave. When a group of Chechens reportedly raped the daughter of the Cossack leader in Remontnoye, Vodolatski mustered some 500 Cossacks who converged on the village but were blocked by nearly a thousand Russian Interior Ministry troops. Although, subsequently the Interior Ministry’s special unit OMON began to conduct joint patrols with the Cossacks in Remontnoye, searching the residences of non-Russian arrivals from the northern Caucasus for contraband and checking their documentation in order to determine whether any of them were there illegally and thus, allegedly, constituted a threat to the residents of this village.(9) Interestingly, there exists a group of unregistered Don Cossacks, led by Nikolai Kositsyn, rivals to Vodolatski’s recognized organization.(10)
Crimea – Confronting the Tatars
In coastal Crimea which is subject to a large number of property conflicts, some of these have ethnic connotations. Opposing the Crimean Tatars having returned from deportation are also groups calling themselves Cossacks, although the reporter of RFE/RL meeting some of them in Feodosia last year concluded they “look like skinheads”. In that case the stand-off between Cossacks and Tatars was over the latters’ plans to build a cultural centre on disputed land, but an argument raised by the Cossacks was the Crimean Tatars’ supposed separatist agenda and links to Muslim fundamentalists. RFE/RL also learned that most of the Cossacks camping out at the disputed beach property were not Ukrainian Cossacks, but from Krasnodar and Rostov.(11)
Mobilization in local politics
One oddity in the otherwise highly predictable recent local elections shows that the Cossacks are not always obedient henchmen of the authorities. Their grass-roots support makes them a force of their own to reckon with, whose agenda might not always be in line with that of Kremlin’s favourites. In the village of Azovskaya, outside Krasnodar, Igor Vasyuta the incumbent and protegé of the regional authority was defeated by Aleksey Podobny the candidate of the local Cossacks with more than a 20 per cent margin.(12) Also in other areas Cossack representatives were elected to local government, the Okrug of Ust’-Medvednitski in the Volgograd saw 40 Cossacks elected for office. The words of the deputy head of Volgograd’s provincial administration Jurij Sizov, that the Cossacks are capable of both stabilizing the situation in the south of Russia as well as coming to the defence of her borders indicate good relations between Cossacks and local power in that area.(13)
Formalizing their status
Now commonplace vigilantes and informal reinforcements to the police, the Cossacks are in the process of being incorporated into the regular law enforcement and security apparatus. Putin in April submitted a bill to the State Duma that would allow Cossacks to serve as soldiers, police, and border guards. The bill passed the Duma on 9 November and was published in Rossiskaya Gazeta a month later. The law stipulates Cossacks will serve with the Ministry of Interior as well as border guards, taking part in upholding public order, dealing with environmental hazards, fires and terrorism.(14) In a press conference on 15 December, Vodolatski went further, claiming that partial responsibility for securing borders and enforcing customs would through agreements be transferred to the Cossacks.(15)
Words of warning
Osipov (aforementioned analyst) warned against the measure; “Who enters Cossack organizations? Former - or even serving - police officers, former army officers, or simply losers, collective-farm members who tend to drink too much vodka. On the whole, people with nationalist, archaic views.”(18) In a similar vein, Aleksandr Golts, a military expert and deputy editor of Yezhednevnyi Zhurnal, asserts that “. . . we have a lot of examples of them organizing something like lynch-courts.”(17) The elements described in this manner have been elevated to a place of honor as Putin’s presidential guard now includes two squadrons of Cossack cavalry. Moreover, Edgar Saroyan, a correspondent with the RIA-Novosti news agency in the Northern Caucasus warns that arming the Cossacks would further destabilize the North Caucasus.(18) Alarming is perhaps the paragraph of the law that specifically mentions that the Cossacks should be enlisted in the fight against terrorism.(19) Lessons learned from other places in the world indicate this could bode ill for the already shaky respect of human rights in Russia.
1. Grau, Lester W. “The Cossack Brotherhood Reborn: A Political/military Force in a Realm of Chaos” The Foreign Military Studies Office; http://fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/documents/cossack/cossack.htm#68, originally published in Low Intensity Conflict & Law Enforcement, Volume 2, Number 3, Winter 1993.
2. Gordienko, Anatolij. “Abkhaziya gotovitsya k yugoslavskomu tsenariyu” Nezavisimoye Voennoye Obozreniye, No 49(458), 23 December, 2005; http://nvo.ng.ru/wars/2005-12-23/1_abhazia.html.
3. The description of the Cossacks as ”mafia” is that of a local source who wishes to remain anonymous.
4. Revere, C.T., “City opens arms to thankful family” Tucson Citizen, 24 November, 2005; http://www.tucsoncitizen.com/intucson/history_culture/112405a1_ct_thanksgiving.
5. Finn, Peter, “Revival of Cossacks Casts Muslim Group Out of Russia to U.S.” Washington Post Foreign Service, 18 November, 2005; Page A19 http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/11/17/AR2005111702014.html.
6. “British Journalists Get Personal Lesson in Cossack Intimidation Tactics” FSU Monitor, 6 October, 2005; http://www.fsumonitor.com/stories/100605Russ2.shtml.
7. ”Orthodox Activists, Cossacks Attack Hindu Festival in South Russia” MosNews, 6 October, 2005; http://www.mosnews.com/news/2005/10/06/krishnabeaten.shtml.
8. Ria Novosti, 29 April, 2005; http://en.rian.ru/analysis/20050429/39761709.html citing Aikakan Zhamanak, 21 April, 2005.
9. Goble, Paul, “Window on Eurasia: Will Russia’s Cossacks Again Repress Non-Russian Minorities?” FSU Monitor, 10 August, 2005; http://www.fsumonitor.com/stories/081005Russia.shtml.
10. RFE/RL NEWSLINE Vol. 9, No. 186, Part I, 3 October, 2005.
11. Krushelnycky, Askold. “Ukraine: Crimea's Tatars -- Uneasy Relations With Russian Cossacks” RFE/RL, 27 August 2004; http://rfe.rferl.org/featuresarticle/2004/08/a2fee1cf-b0f6-41b6-9065-ea7f757374e1.html.
12. Reported by the local opposition paper Novaya Gazeta Kubani, No. 1119(94), 15 December, 2005; http://pressa.kuban.info/article/ngk/26375/.
13. “Kazaki idut vo vlast’” Volgograd v Seti 25 January, 2006; http://www.volgograd.ru/news/?new=28725.
14. Federalnyj zakon Rossiskoj Federatsii ot 5 dekabrya 2005 g. N 154-Ф3 “O gosudarstvennoj sluzjbye rossiskogo kazachestvo”; http://www.rg.ru/2005/12/08/kazachestvo.html.
15. “Viktor Volodatskij: Deyatelnost kazachestvo v Rossii uzakonena” IA Regnum, 16 December, 2005; http://www.regnum.ru/news/561508.html.
16. Bigg, Claire, “Russia: Putin Takes Steps To Help Cossacks Restore Some Of Their Former Status” RFE/RL, 27 May, 2005; http://www.rferl.org/featuresarticle/2005/05/01322f73-7f51-49f5-80c9-34371343f99c.html.
17. Parsons, Robert, “Cossack Revival Gains Momentum” RFE/RL (Un)Civil Societies, Vol. 6, No. 8, 18 May, 2005.
19. Article V §4.3, Federalnyj zakon Rossiskoj Federatsii ot 5 dekabrya 2005 g. N 154-Ф3 O gosudarstvennoj sluzhbye rossiskogo kazachestvo; http://www.rg.ru/2005/12/08/kazachestvo.html.