Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Cossacks Menace Krasnodar Minorities

Cossacks in the Russian region of Krasnodar have been effectively given the go-ahead to bully minority groups into leaving.
By Eduard Aslanov

Walk down the city of Krasnodar's main pedestrianised thoroughfare and every so often you'll see the crowds part. This, as any local knows, means a Cossack patrol is coming down the street of the eponymously named capital of the Black Sea Russian region.

They stroll nonchalantly in smart red, white and blue uniforms trailing swords or cracking whips on the asphalt. Their weapons snap and glint in the sunshine - studded with ball-bearings or nails. They're not a sight you easily forget.

Their outfits, Circassian coat in summer, felt coat and papakh hat in winter, mean different things to different people. For some the outfit is traditional garb, others see it as a sinister paramilitary uniform.

The patrolling Cossacks believe it is their duty to enforce law and order in Krasnodar and the local police are giving them freer and freer rein to do so. A Cossack commander, who preferred not to be named, said the troops "are a big factor in helping the police keep order" and receive backing from Moscow.

But along with a greater policing role there have been an increasing number of attacks on members on minority groups who are spot-checked by Cossack patrols.

"I was whipped three times for leaving my passport at home," said Artur, an ethnic Armenian Krasnodar trader.

Giorgi, a refugee from Abkhazia, told IWPR how he made the mistake of cursing three Cossacks. They laid into him with their whips, kicking him when he was down. "I spent three weeks in hospital," he said before quitting the coastal town of Sochi.

Cossack units have signed an agreement with the local authorities in Sochi - the second largest town in Krasnodar - which gives them tax exemptions and better land leasing rights in exchange for patrolling the border and other duties.

Although they haven't been formally asked to do so, the Cossacks have taken it on themselves to help remove illegal aliens - a large number of whom are Meshket Turks.

"Our presence here is illegal," said Durun, a Meshket-Turk activist. "We are not being registered in towns or villages, we have no rights and can be driven out at any given moment."

While figures for Meskhets vary from between 20 to 30,000, only 2,500 have Russian citizenship. The federal minister responsible for foreign nationals, Aleksandr Blokhin, has said that lists are being drawn up for sending Meskhets abroad.

Tensions between Cossacks and Meskhets took a turn for the worse last year with the former demanding the "expulsion" of ethnic Turks supposedly on the grounds of "the age-old incompatibility of Slavic and Turkic populations".

And the Meskhets are just one group targeted by the Cossacks. "What annoys us," said history teacher Aslanbey Skhalakho, "is that Cossacks call Caucasians 'other', and think that they are the only true inhabitants of the region."

Which is far from the case as Cossacks only settled here at the end of the 18th century when the land they call "The Kuban" was given them by Catherine II.

Locals fear that the situation will worsen. During a radio interview late last year, one Cossack military officer complained that "there was already no space left for Cossacks to tread in the Kuban".

Cossack rights had been suppressed under the Soviet Union and their return to prominence in Krasnodar unfortunately coincided with a wave of refugees to the region. Meskhetian Turks fleeing pogroms in the Fergana valley were joined by Georgian escaping the Abkhazian conflict. In all there are around 100,000 refugees living among the resident population of six million.

Psychologist Sergei Kiryanov believes that the current violence represents a resurgence of the Cossack's traditional, warring instinct. "When Yeltsin became president," said Kiryanov, "he brought back the rights of Cossacks, which served as a signal for them to rejuvenate their warring tendencies. It is no coincidence that Cossacks are a part of every national conflict on post-Soviet territory and even in the Balkans."

Indeed, Cossack units fought during the 1992 Abkhazian war on the side of separatists gunning for independence from Georgia. Aleksandr Tkachenko, the Cossack Krasnodar governor, still gives the self-proclaimed republic moral and material support in the hope it will eventually ally itself to his region.

Eduard Aslanov is the pseudonym of a freelance journalist from Krasnodar in the Northern Caucasus.