The Cossacks: A Legal Primer

by Chris Borgen

The recent altercation between members of Pussy Riot and Cossack militia that was caught on video is a red flag signalling a broader issue in the Russian Federation: the resurgent power of the Cossacks and their relation to the Russian state, especially to keep politically-disfavored groups in check.

But who are the Cossacks?  A paramilitary organization? A political party? An ethnic group? And what are they doing at the Sochi Olympics?  This post will try to explain a little about who the Cossacks are, their role in Russia today, and the legal implications for human rights, minority rights in particular, and the use of state power.

The word “Cossack” summons for many images of mustachioed horsemen with bearskin hats. But, as one CNN report put it, “the Cossacks have long symbolized rebellion and military might in Western and Southern Russia and Ukraine.” Today’s Cossack organizations provide contracted-for security services for Russian regional governments.  Aleksandr Tkachev, the governor of Russia’s Krasnodar region, in which Sochi is located, has been at the forefront of contracting with the Cossacks (although, as I’ll explain below, this has been supported from the Presidency on down). About 400 Cossacks are being used as security in Sochi. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

As for the utility of  having Cossacks–a non-state (or perhaps quasi-governmental) entity–provide security services, the official line seems to be that Cossacks will have greater leeway for action. CNN again:

“What you cannot do, a Cossack can,” Krasnodar Gov. Aleksandr Tkachev explained to local police.

His comments sparked an outcry from Sochi natives, minorities and migrants. Analysts say it is not a coincidence that the Cossacks’ revival is taking place as nationalism and xenophobia are on the rise in Russia.

[Emphasis added.]

The Pussy Riot incident in Sochi is simply the most obvious example of a larger trend that could have important implications for the rule of law in Russia and in former Soviet republics. But before looking at the current situation in greater detail, some history and context is needed.

The CNN report gave a capsule history of the Cossacks:

Known for rebelling against Russia’s feudal system, the Cossack state allied itself with Russia’s tsars to help create the monolithic Russian Empire. These warrior horsemen helped bring Russian rule to vast parts of the country, most notably Siberia.

During the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, the Cossacks fought for the Russian crown in regional wars against the Russian people, garnering a reputation as the tsars’ henchmen. Acting on behalf of the Russian Empire, the Cossacks carried out pogroms, or massacres of the Jews, in 19th century Russia.

But over time, the tsars became wary of the Cossacks’ impunity against the Russian Empire and their inability to fully control them. So, when the Cossacks again turned to rebellion against the empire and its imposed rule, the tsars ruthlessly punished the Cossack leaders and their warriors, as documented in the Cossack rebellion, led by Yemelyan Pugachev, against Catherine the Great in the late 18th century.

The World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples, published by Minority Rights Group International, explains that the Cossacks also historically controlled territory in the Russian Empire:

Traditionally Cossacks guarded the frontiers of the Russian Empire and in return were granted land privileges. Cossacks were also used to repress uprisings against the Russian state. By the end of the nineteenth century, Cossack settlement stretched from southern Russia to the Pacific. During the nineteenth century the Cossacks formed the Don Cossack Republic along the lower and middle reaches of the River Don.

[Emphasis added.]

Later, the Cossacks were the enemies of the Bolsheviks and were persecuted and killed under communist rule.

The World Directory continues:

In the late 1980s, Cossack groups began to revive and the Association of Cossacks was formed (July 1990). Cossacks have presented themselves as guardians of Russia’s frontiers, especially in the North Caucasus. Cossacks fought with the separatist forces in the Transdniester conflict in Moldova in 1992.

In June 1991 President Yeltsin issued a decree marking the political rehabilitation of Cossacks, and on 11 March 1993 Yeltsin signed a further decree granting them state support. In August 1995, Yeltsin announced that Cossack units would be formed in the Border Guards of the Russian Army. In 2005 mounted Cossack units were integrated into local police forces in Rostov oblast.

[Emphasis added.]

According to a 2005 Washington Post story, Putin said in a May 2005 meeting with Cossack leaders that “There is a long-felt need to confer a legal status on the activity of Cossack units… Cossacks serving in Cossack units keep law and order.”

Cossacks as a paramilitary force thus are used to protect what they view as the interest of ethnic Russians.  In practice, this actually has two very different implications: within the Russian Federation, Cossacks are used against Muslim populations living in the Russian south, especially in the Caucasus, but outside of the Russian Federation, in former Soviet Republics such as Moldova and Georgia, Cossacks have assisted separatist groups allied with Moscow.  In short: they amplify state power within Russia, they undermine state power in former Soviet republics. The Directory of Minorities notes:

the activities of some parts of the [Cossack] community have attracted criticism from Russian human rights activists. Legally unregulated Cossack paramilitary and vigilante groups have engaged extensively in violence directed at immigrants and ethnic minorities in regions of southern Russia, often with tacit official support. Georgia has also accused Russian Cossacks of assisting secessionism in South Ossetia.

This semi-official status of the Cossacks has had support from the Russian Presidency and the Duma on down. According to the World Directory:

In May 2005 the Russian State Duma passed a presidential bill formalizing the recruitment of Russian Cossacks’ into state service in police, military and border guard units. The bill was intended to legalize unregulated practices of Cossack recruitment by providing a legal framework addressing Cossacks’ role in military service and in combating terrorism. It also defined as legal entities Cossack hosts and villages. The bill further granted Cossack communities the right to select members for service in designated Cossack units.

[Emphasis added.]

On the one hand, bringing unregulated Cossacks closer to hand may be a very good idea, as long as the Russian government uses this as an opportunity to curb abusive practices. But the 2005 article in the Washington Post (mentioned above) explained why this “legitimization” of the Cossacks actually was of great concern to human rights groups by chronicling the story of Cossack persecution of the Meskhetian Turks that same year. The problem is that the Cossacks already seemed to be coordinating with local officials and that they were providing local officials the means to go beyond the scope of what was legal:

Thousands of Muslims from a small ethnic group known as the Meskhetian Turks are fleeing this Black Sea region for the United States. The exodus is caused by what human rights groups call a campaign of persecution sanctioned by local authorities and spearheaded by the Cossacks…<snip>

“I call it soft ethnic cleansing,” said Alexander Ossipov, an analyst at the Institute for Humanities and Political Studies in Moscow. “The local authorities decided which ethnic groups were desirable and which were not. It’s government based on a racist ideology.”

And then the Washington Post quoted Governor Tkachev:

The region’s top leadership appears to endorse administrative harassment. “Most of the Meskhetian Turks do not want to get out of our territory,” Gov. Alexander Tkachev said in a speech in September 2001. “I think all available mechanism of pressure and persuasion will be employed to make the number of departing guests rise.”

[Emphasis added.]

According to sources in the article, the “departing guests” should have been considered Russian citizens, based on the citizenship law of 1991, but Krasnodar officials refused to supply the necessary papers to the Meskhetians.  The same article describes some of the alleged “mechanisms of pressure and persuasion,” and why the 2005 law was seen as a threat:

“How can Putin make police out of people who have no respect for the law?” said Sarvar Tedorov, 57, a community leader who lives in the town of Varenikovskaya, about 80 miles from Krasnodar. “Is he completely blind? They break into our houses, even during prayer. They humiliate us and call us names. The beatings are regular.”

And also:

“It’s impossible to live here,” said Rustam Zautadze, 35, also from Varenikovskaya, who is moving to Baltimore soon with 17 other family members, including his wife and three children, his parents, his siblings and their children. “Several times, Cossacks and police came to my house and asked for our papers, which of course we don’t have. And then they fine us. If they catch you on the street, they arrest you. I’ve spent several weeks in detention centers.”

That was in 2005, prior to the eyes of the world turning to Sochi and the Krasnodar region. But even today we have the “what the police cannot do, a Cossack can,” rhetoric from government officials. As for the Cossacks,  Russia Today, a Russian government  funded news outlet, describes the current situation of expanding Cossack involvement in security affairs:

The Presidential Council for Cossack Affairs is a separate body of leading officials and public activists appointed by the president to deal with Cossack issues. It approved the plan for 2014 and 2015 and it included cooperation with the Cossack party and greater involvement of Cossacks in law enforcement and border protection. For this, the police are being asked to sign contracts with regional Cossack groups so that paramilitaries could form patrols together with police officers.

The approved concept also provides for state assistance to private security firms registered and manned by Cossacks.

[Emphasis added.]

Perhaps the joint police/Cossack patrols will ultimately rein in the Cossacks.  But, wherever people like Governor Tkachev are in charge, I have little confidence in that being the result.

Although I mentioned that the use of Cossacks within Russia amplifies the power of the Russian state, in part by “doing what the police cannot do,” the Cossacks are also becoming an independent political force, making their own demands. According to the recent CNN report mentioned above, the role of Cossacks as a security force:

has opened up a “can of worms,” writes Valeriy Dzutsev, an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation. That’s because some Cossacks are starting to demand more power and land from Moscow “to support the process of the rebirth of the Cossacks,” Dzutsev writes in the Central Asial-Caucasus Institute (CACI) Analyst.

As for the Cossacks as a political party, Russia Today reports that:

The Presidential Council for Cossack Affairs has approved the plan for the next two years which provides for participation in regional and municipal elections as well as in public security and protection of the state border.

The Cossack Party of the Russian Federation was registered in January 2013.

Russia Today states that there are about 750,000 Cossacks in Russia, in several groups. “Some 67,000 Cossacks also insist that they are a separate people according to the 2010 census.”

The rise of Cossacks as a political power should be kept in mind in relation to possible Cossack territorial claims both as they affect regional stability and also possible disagreement with the Russian state itself. I do not know to what extent Cossack territorial claims are still a significant issue in 2014, but this is what World Directory stated in 2008:

The Cossacks have strong aspirations for local self-government and have also sought national autonomy. The Don Cossack Grand Council has led these demands. The Terek Cossacks, whose lands encompassed the territories of North Ossetia, Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia, have aggressively pursued land claims, bringing them into conflict with North Caucasian peoples…

In November 2005 the Don Cossacks reiterated their demand for a territorialized form of autonomy in the shape of a reconstituted Don Cossack Republic, which would also confer upon Cossacks the status of a distinct ethnic group. Sources in the presidential administration categorically rejected any such possibility.

One hopes that the net result of increasing Cossack formal contracts with the Russian federal government and with the regional governments, as well as the Cossacks becoming an official political party,is that the Cossacks will be better regulated by the Russian state and will also police themselves to put an end to their abuses.  But there is the risk that something like the opposite may occur: that, like Governor Tkachev’s ominous statement, the Cossacks will be used to do the things that official state forces are wary of being caught doing. And that by increasing their political power, Cossacks will feel  impunity, not greater constraint.

In this grey zone between being non-state actor and a government entity, the Cossacks are at an inflection point in determining not what they were, but what they will be. Let them consider how they looked to the world, pepper-spraying peaceful protestors at the Olympics, and ponder that. Let us, as well.

One Response

  1. A few thoughts…if I may Chris.
    First, there is limited scholarship and analysis of your own in this article. You have cherry-picked up a number of clips to form your opinion, which is hardly a substance of consideration when it comes to having an objective research.
    Second, and seriously, who relies on CNN as a source? Third, some of your “cherry-picked sources” are old. 
    Lastly, are you insinuating something here? Gosh, everyone knows how to fix someone else’s house. Let them kill, abuse and let them reconcile. They live there and they will change. An indigenous understanding and realization to to form peaceful co-exitence with the other is by far noble than something spouted from a far and transplanted. We will all be better off if we mind your own business. 

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