Staunton, March 19 – The Russian justice ministry is working on legislation defining the Cossacks as an independent people rather than simply a social stratum within the Russian nation. If they get that status, some Russians fear, that will open their way to demand independence particularly given that then they can legitimately claim to have been victims of genocide.
On the Versiya portal, Russian commentator Igor Yegorov says that such talk raises the question “Is Cossackia not Russia?” the answer to which, he suggests, most Russians had assumed was settled a long time ago and need not be revisited now (versia.ru/kubanskie-kazaki-zaxoteli-stat-narodom).
Yegorov says that the initiator of this new federal law is Nikolay Doluda, the ataman of the Kuban Cossack host. The Cossack says that “the most important” aspect of the draft legislation is that “the status of Cossackry is defined in the document as a special form of state and social life of a self-standing people – a people and nothing other.”
“In other words, the Versiya commentator says, those who have drafted this legislation believe that “in the south of Russia lives a certain independent people, the Cossacks, and these are in no way Russians.” It thus opens the way for the Cossacks to carry out a planned 2020 census of the population to determine who is a Cossack and who is a Russian.
A little over a year ago, he continues, the Presidential Council on Cossack Affairs called for the preparation of “a ‘big’ law on Russian Cossacks,” something the Federal Agency for Nationality Affairs approved. “No one disputes that such a law is important and necessary. But why run to the extremes?”
Many Cossacks do believe they are a separate people and not a social stratum of the Russian nation, Yegorov concedes; but not everyone in Moscow has reflected on what it will mean if the Cossacks are defined that way in legal terms. If they become a nation, the Cossacks will be able to justify their Day of the Cossack Genocide on January 24.
That is because only a people may be subject to genocide: a social class or stratum can’t be, however much it may have suffered. And if the Cossacks are a people who has been subject to a genocide, they are well on their way to demanding independent statehood under current international law.
Those working on the draft insist they have not made this concession. According to them, Yegorov says, “the document does not contain a precise formulation that the Cossacks are a self-standing ethnos.” But that is hardly the end of the story, he argues, given what the draft legislation does say.
“Paragraph 2 of the draft law contains the following definition: ‘The Russian Cossacks are a historically evolved ethno-cultural community of citizens living on definite territories and having a unique culture, traditional economic arrangements and forms of dress.” That almost completely “coincides with the Stalinist definition of ‘the nation’ as a people.”
Ask any legal specialist about the way these two things coincide and he will tell you that they do whatever the drafters of the legislation think, the Versiya commentator says. And if the Cossacks are given this, soon they will want their own independent national territory, something that would carve up the Russian Federation.
Since 1959, when the US Captive Nations Week law was passed, many have laughed at the very idea of Cossackia as a place deserving national self-determination. But with this new law, the Cossacks in all their diversity are closer to being able to make that claim on the ground than they have ever been.
Not surprisingly, some Russians are worried. There are now some five million Cossacks in 12 hosts from the Arctic to the southern borders of Russia and from the western edge of that country to the Pacific. If a significant number of them pursue self-determination, that will pose perhaps the largest ethnic challenge the Russian Federation has ever faced.