Cossacks: Friend or Foe of Yeltsin Reform?
President's support for the warrior caste's autonomy bid increases the risk of ethnic war
NOVOCHERKASSK, RUSSIA — IT has been almost two years since the Communist Party lost its grip on power, but statues to Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin still occupy prominent places in most cities in Russia.
Not so in this city of 50,000, located in the heart of the fertile flatlands of the Don River basin. After the Communists' downfall, little time was lost in toppling the Lenin statue that dominated the city's central square.
In its place, residents rebuilt - relying on old photographs - a statue honoring Matvei Platov, a Cossack hero of Russia's war against Napoleonic France. Novocherkassk is the traditional capital of the Don Cossacks, erstwhile enemies of the Bolshevik regime who are eager to regain their place in Russian society.
The restoration of the Platov statue and other historical symbols is only a small part of the Cossacks' revival program. Its leaders say they want to regain all rights enjoyed by Cossacks under Russia's czars.
"It would be good for us, and good for Russia, to restore the rights of our forefathers. We can be an important part of the revival of Great Russia," says Ivan Arkhipov, a Cossack leader of the Rostov-on-Don district.
President Boris Yeltsin apparently shares Mr. Arkhipov's sentiments. "Artificial obstacles blocking the revival of Cossack traditions will be removed through our joint efforts," Mr. Yeltsin said in an April statement.
But some political leaders warn that Yeltsin is playing with fire. They compare the restoration of full Cossacks rights to the opening of a Pandora's box of potential ethnic conflict.
"Yeltsin doesn't have a clear understanding of the Cossacks," says historian Viktor Bezotosny, a Cossack specialist. "He united with them for tactical reasons, but strategically they could represent a threat to him."
The Don area is home not only to Cossacks, but also Russians, as well as a significant community from the mountainous Caucasus region to the south. The Caucasian nationalities historically have been bitter foes of the Cossacks. With Russia still in the grip of an economic crisis, ethnic tensions in Rostov could easily ignite, observers say, adding the Cossacks could serve as the spark.
One step already taken by Yeltsin - the formation of Cossack border guard units in the volatile North Caucasus region - has been attacked by ethnic minority leaders in parliament. They warn of a repeat of the 19th-century Caucasian wars, in which the Cossacks played a key role in the Russian conquest of the region. "Factors have accumulated in the Caucasus that could trigger a civil war," says Ramazan Abdulatipov, chairman of the parliament's Chamber of Nationalities.
"It's also ironic from the Cossack side that what they are currently trying to accomplish contradicts their patriotic ideals," Mr. Bezotosny says. "They want a strong, united Great Russia, but they are helping to facilitate its breakup."
Traditionally, Cossacks were a warrior caste of staunch Russian nationalists, strong backers of the czar and firm believers in the Orthodox Church. There were 14 Cossack semi-autonomous regions, called military districts, of which the Don Cossack area was the most powerful.
Under the Romanov czars, Cossacks enjoyed a special status. They never experienced serfdom, a form of slavery that kept peasants bound to estates until 1861. Instead, Cossacks were smallholders, or private farmers tilling land that was communally owned. Military service was the principal Cossack tradition, and Cossack units served as the backbone of the Russian Army.
MANY Cossacks fiercely resisted the Red Army during the Russian Civil War of 1918-22. After the Bolsheviks established firm control over Russia, they ruthlessly persecuted Cossacks, viewing them as a prime threat to the new Communist state.
Yeltsin - now locked in a power struggle with those he terms the "neo-Bolsheviks" controlling the Russian parliament - has sought to utilize Cossack hatred for the Soviet regime.
Don Cossack leaders have thus far been receptive to Yeltsin's overtures, supporting the president in last month's referendum. But at the same time, a considerable number of Cossacks, including Arkhipov, have doubts about Yeltsin keeping his promises.
"Every time Yeltsin is in dire straits at the Congress [of People's Deputies] he turns to the Cossacks for support. But as soon as the threat has passed, the Cossacks find themselves forgotten," Arkhipov says.
The Cossacks will turn on Yeltsin if he fails to help revival efforts this time around, warns Vladimir Yemelyanov, deputy head of the Rostov Regional Administration. "There will be problems if the Cossacks feel they're only being used as a political weapon," he says.
As it stands, Yeltsin's policy is flawed because it assumes Cossack support for democratic institutions, Bezotosny says. "Part of the movement may support Yeltsin, but many side with the Red-Brown [Russian nationalist] forces," he says.
A big problem with the Cossack movement, Mr. Yemelyanov adds, is that it is controlled by "bandits, hooligans, and others who use the Cossack banner for convenience."
Local authorities are struggling to contain Cossack vigilante action, as well as attempts to establish separate governing bodies, Yemelyanov says. Ultranationalist Cossack volunteers have already served in conflicts raging in the former Yugoslavia and former Soviet republics of Moldova and Georgia.
Also problematic for Yeltsin is that a complete revival of Cossack traditions may be impossible; Bezotosny notes that Cossacks have lost touch with traditional farming.
"The [revival] plan may be unrealistic," he adds, "but what is real is that they are an organized force, in contrast to the collapse of other power structures in the country."