Staunton, November 23 – Many problems some Cossacks are now presenting in the North Caucasus, including demands for the return of territory from Chechnya, are the result of Krasnodar Kray’s decision in 1995 to treat that group of people not as a social stratum defined by employment but as an ethos “separate from the Russian people,” Vsevolod Zolotukhin says.
The scholar at the Moscow Higher School of Economics tells Artur Priymak of Nezavisimaya gazeta that this policy has encouraged the Cossacks to think of themselves as a nation and to view “all the Slavic and non-Muslim population of the Kuban” as Cossacks rather than ethnic Russians (
Zolotukhin says this Krasnodar policy, one at odds with Moscow’s, has “two dimensions. The first is that if the authorities as in tsarist times will decide who is an indigenous resident and who is someone who himself or his descendants has come from outside, it is possible that this will lead [within Russia itself] to the institution of non-citizens as in Estonia and Latvia.”
“And the second is a reflection of its being next door to the North Caucasus. The authorities calculate that they must develop a firm regional identity. Otherwise the kray will become only a frontier region filled with problems like Stavropol where such an identity has not been formed among the Terek Cossacks.”
There are at least three reasons why this is important – and why Moscow is trying so hard to discredit what the Krasnodar Kray officials are doing and the way the Cossacks are responding by accusing the latter of being atheists and supporters of anti-Moscow Patriarchate positions and Nazi collaborators.
First of all, it highlights something Moscow doesn’t want to admit but that is very real: the Russian “nation” is in fact not a unified whole but rather a congeries of groups, each of which is trying to find its place in the sun. The Cossacks are only the most prominent, but they are of course far from the only one.
Second, Krasnodar’s actions show that Moscow’s policy in this area has not been universally applied. Stavropol has fallen in line and insisted that Cossacks are an ethnic Russian stratum, but Krasnodar has not, concluding that it is better off to come to an understanding with the Cossacks in order to defend itself and its interests.
And third, such regional variations in the treatment of Cossacks not only highlight the weakness of the Russian state on this question but also mean that Cossack groups like those in Krasnodar are in a position to cause the central government real problems by using the media, including the Internet, to demand territorial changes in their favor.
Just as Priymak admits that the actions of Cossacks in Krasnodar vis-à-vis Chechnya are the result of developments in Ingushetia concerning the border accord with Ramzan Kadyrov, so too other groups within what Moscow views as the Russian “nation” are likely to be inspired by what the Cossacks of Krasnodar are doing, however much the center tries to discredit them.