Cossacks: No Protectors

The recent meeting of the deputy secretary of Russia's Security Council, Boris Berezovsky, with Cossack hetmans, in which he said the Cossacks should be armed and allowed actively to defend ethnic Russians in the region from the Chechens, has caused a great stir. A significant part of the State Duma and an overwhelming majority of the Federation Council voted down Berezovsky's proposal, saying it violated the constitution. The Cossacks, however, are likely to remain a strong political presence, especially given that Chechnya's future is still uncertain and the federal authorities' cannot guarantee the security of the population of southern Russia.

There are many ways of looking at the Cossack question. One is to make light of the mostly elder, bearded Cossack men who dress up in their grandfathers' uniforms with medals awarded to their ancestors 100 years ago. This is, of course, partly a masquerade.

Many Cossacks believe that just by bearing arms they can be turned into a threatening force that is capable of countering the "threat from the Caucasus." But they are clearly mistaken, since most of them have never had any formal military training.

Indeed, poor training proved fatal for the federal troops when they were called on to fulfill President Boris Yeltsin's decree on "establishing constitutional order in Chechnya." From the very start of the Chechen conflict, it was clear that there were no more than three or four combat-ready divisions in the entire Russian army. General Anatoly Golovnyov, who was charged in those days with training combat units to be sent to Chechnya, spent less than a week training soldiers recruited from around Russia before sending them off for battle. Military officers themselves often lost command over their troops during combat operations.

This is one reason why the air force was called on so often, despite its indiscriminate bombing, which accounted for many casualties among the civilian population. Officers and soldiers learned how to fight on the battlefield, which brought about serious losses among the fighters.

How could the Cossacks hope to fare any better against the professional military experience that the Chechens gained over the course of the war?

Professional soldiers are quite skeptical of the Cossacks' fighting capabilities. Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov and Federation Council Chairman Yegor Stroyev have both warned of the consequences of arming civilians: Arms would proliferate throughout the country and crime in southern Russia would spread.

But the problem, of course, is not only one of combat readiness. Tensions and resentment have been building up in southern Russia since the hostage crises in Budyonnovsk and Kizlyar. In Stavropol and Krasnodar, the human-rights activist Sergei Kovalyov is widely perceived to be a "defender of bandits and murderers" among the Russian masses. Such sentiments are something the politicians are unlikely to ignore.

Moreover, the Russian news media rarely discuss the fate of the half million ethnic-Russian refugees from Chechnya. But their tragic situation may eventually present serious problems for the Kremlin. Nikita Khrushchev's decision in 1957 to divide Chechnya into two regions -- the Naursky and the Shelkovskoi, whose populations are nearly 50 percent Russian -- remains a thorny problem for the inhabitants of Russia's south. There are many among them who make revanchist claims on the territory.

A huge segment of the male population in the Caucasus is armed. Although these weapons are hidden away for the time being, they still worry the authorities. Berezovsky's proposal to arm the Cossacks could be considered an attempt to legalize underground weapons, thus establishing some control over them. The next step would be to prevent the armed Cossacks from becoming autonomous units and ensure that they work with the army and militsia. Perhaps, the Cossacks could then become a prototype for a national guard in the south of Russia similar to the one in the United States.

But the Cossack problem will not go away any time soon. And nationalists are not the only ones who would like use this ethnic group. Another is Yeltsin, who does not shy away from reminding people that he is president of a Greater Russia, with all of its imperial traditions and ambitions.

In the current conditions of reform in Russia, a Cossack "renaissance" is not possible in any case. There is simply no room for a military class within Russian society today. Originally organized to defend the empire's borders, the Cossacks once enjoyed a number of tsarist privileges that would be senseless in an industrialized, democratic society. The Cossacks' potent mix of chauvinism, xenophobia and patriarchal-communal socialism is also quite disturbing. It is not surprising that the leaders of the patriotic-communist coalition have tried to establish closer ties with the Cossacks.

The solution to the Cossack problem is directly tied to reforming the economy as well as the military. Universal conscription has kept the military at a low professional level and unprepared to defend the country's citizens. It is precisely this state of affairs that some Cossack leaders are counting on.

Rather than putting their efforts into meaningful economic and military reform, the federal authorities are putting large sums of money into military bases that border on Chechnya. The troops defeated in the Chechen conflict are now being sent to those bases "just in case." This only confirms that there are some who believe "constitutional order" may have to be established once again in that mutinous republic. It can't be ruled out, therefore, that the Cossacks will have further occasions to draw attention to themselves and make advantageous deals with the federal authorities. But what benefit could such deals possibly bring to the new Russia?

Yury Buyda, a writer, is on the editorial board of Novoye Vremya and Znamya. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.