Cossacks' Resurrection

Today, in the south of Russia, particularly in the northern Caucasus, one often meets Russians dressed in felt cloaks and fur hats who consider themselves a special Orthodox people. These are the Cossacks. Before the October revolution, they were the most trusted military force of Russia's tsars. They were masters of Russia's southern borders who widened the reaches of the empire and defended the nation's frontiers against enemies for almost 200 years.

The Romanov dynasty enjoyed a special relationship with the Cossacks, granting them special privileges and fertile lands in southern Russia. The government rarely interfered in the Cossacks' daily life, allowing them to develop their own cultural and economic traditions.

But when the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, the Cossacks were identified as a chief foe of the Soviets. Twice they were subjected to genocide: first, in the 1920s, during the civil war; second, in the 1930s, during Stalin's purges.

When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, the Cossacks were rehabilitated as a people. Then their resurrection began. In 1990, the Union of Cossacks was formed, which, after the demise of the Soviet Union, became a special branch in the administration of the president of Russia.

Before the Chechen war, the Cossacks called on society and the government to pay attention to them as a people wishing to reestablish their economic and cultural way of life, but now they want to become a real political force in southern Russia.

The Cossacks first want to achieve governmental status. Then they want to receive weapons and form their own armed forces. The Chechen war has hastened these processes. Today, in almost all cities of the northern Caucasus, the Kuban and in the Rostov region, Cossacks in local administrations try to influence the political situation there.

That's not enough for the Cossack resurrection. Russia's failure in the war provided a catalyst for the militarization of Cossacks in the Stavropol and Kuban regions. Seeing that federal forces cannot defend Russia's interests in the Caucasus, the Cossacks have taken matters into their own hands.

During the war, many Cossack divisions conducted military operations against the Chechen warriors autonomously. While the separate Cossack battalion named after General Yermolov fought with federal forces in Chechnya, small Cossack groups from the Stavropol region conducted partisan raids, not just to kill Chechens, but to seize as many weapons as possible. The Cossacks thus armed themselves during the two-year war.

Vladimir Shevtsov, the Cossack ataman of the Terksky troops, said, "Yes, we are preparing for war, and we will avenge the Russians routed from Chechnya. We will seize the lands of that thieving nation: the Shyolkovsky and Nursky region, in the north of Chechnya, given to the Chechens by Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950s."

Since last year, separate armed Cossack groups have been a headache for local authorities. Clashes began in the Stavropol region, and in one such conflict two policemen, who were trying to disarm a Cossack band, were killed. The crime, committed in February 1996, concluded, a year later, with a scandalous court case in Pyatigorsk.

An investigation of many months, delays of the court date, Cossack meetings in defense of their brothers -- all enabled the Terksky atamans to turn the court case into a loud political process.

The insistent Cossacks managed to have the court change the article under which the accused were charged. They thus saved the main perpetrator, Alexander Goncharenko, who had faced the death penalty. On Feb. 10, a crowd of Terksky Cossack troops gathered at the courthouse and celebrated the victory.

The prosector and judicial officials gave in to the frenzied Cossacks; as a result, Goncharenko, who shot a policeman, received 14 years for illegally carrying a weapon and premeditated murder. The rest of the accused got lesser sentences.

I asked a Cossack at the Pyatigorsk meeting why he defended the accused. A veteran of the Chechen war, he shouted, "They are patriots of Russia. They killed Chechens and saved the motherland from Moslem infidels. They should be pardoned."

This first bloody conflict between the authorities and armed Cossacks ended in victory for the Cossacks. They showed the authorities that they will defend their interests and will not allow themselves to be disarmed. The Cossacks are preparing for war with the Chechens, something they don't try to hide.

But the Chechens are not afraid of the Cossacks.

"We beat the huge Russian army," said Vakh Kasanov, deputy prefect of the Nadterechny region. "Our warriors will deal with the Cossacks very quickly. It will be a second defeat for Russia."

Most atamans understand that a new war with the Chechens for territory is a serious military campaign requiring long and thorough preparation.

"Our task is to create a powerful army of thousands, which won't yield an inch of our land to anybody," said Cossack Viktor Ponomaryov.

Shevtsov said the Cossacks are ready to enter the structure of the federal border guards in separate units, although some atamans oppose including any Cossack forces in such units -- only under the aegis of the president, as an elite military force.

The Cossacks have supporters in both the Kremlin and Duma. But arming the Cossacks would have tragic consequences for Russia. Yet for the authorities not to pay attention to this so-called resurrection is even more dangerous.

The Cossacks are armed, poor and dangerous. For now, they only want attention. For now ...

Mumin Shakirov writes for Novaya Gazeta. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.