17:53 GMT +3 hours24 November 2014
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Analysis & Opinion

Cossacks return to state service

Analysis & Opinion
(updated 18:23 28.10.2014)
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MOSCOW (RIA Novosti political commentator Vladimir Simonov) - The Saiga hunting rifle beloved of Russia's Cossack community may soon be experiencing a boom in sales if a bill currently going through parliament becomes law.

The Duma recently approved in first reading a draft law submitted by President Vladimir Putin on state service by Russian Cossacks. If the bill is passed, Cossacks will be able to return to one of their traditional public roles for the first time in decades.

Although the draft does not specify Cossack uniform and military equipment, should it become law some 600,000 Cossacks will officially be able to guard the country's borders, support law and order, and even fight against terrorism.

It was for exactly these reasons that Cossacks formed an organized military community in the late 16th century.

The original Cossacks were runaway slaves who fled the central areas of Russia and settled the southern steppes along the Don River where they were unlikely to be caught. Later, they acknowledged the sovereignty of the tsar in exchange for the status of a special military community with its own rights and freedoms. Don Cossacks took part in all wars that Russia waged from the 18th to the early 20th centuries, and won renown as especially fearsome defenders of the nation. However, this could not save the Cossacks in 1920, when the Soviet government, encouraged by Lenin, abolished them by special decree.

Nevertheless, the Cossacks, who now predominantly reside in the Rostov Region next to the North Caucasus, have managed to preserve the unique customs, traditions and culture of their predecessors. In the early 1990s, they were officially rehabilitated and given the status of a public organization. But this was not enough for these patriotic and military-minded people: They were waiting for a chance to resume their traditional role of frontier guards, and the new law will give them a chance to do so.

The Cossack revival has been brought about by recent changes in the area. The North Caucasus and the Krasnodar Territory need protection from Islamic extremists, as well as from Chechen and international terrorists. In addition, migrants who have flooded the region often attempt to impose their order on the local population. As a result, the number of Russians is diminishing, and Russians no longer feel safe.

General Gennady Troshin, formerly commander of the federal troops in the Chechen Republic and now presidential aide on Cossack issues, is confident that the Cossacks will help protect Russia's southern borders. He considers the Cossacks a serious force, saying that they are already helping the government bodies to maintain law and order in their stanitsas (large villages). Cossack atamans, or chiefs, are usually members of the local administration, and their opinion carries weight with the local governors.

A rank-and-file Cossack made a typical statement in a recent televised report: "Today both [Islamic extremists] and our 'Western friends' are making attempts to split Russia again. Russia needs to muster its spiritual power. Something has to be done to oppose the rat race, the cult of violence and drug addiction. Who will serve in the Army tomorrow? Weaklings. We don't want this to happen. This is why we, the Cossacks of Russia, are restoring our traditions."

If the bill becomes law, draft-age Cossacks will gain the right to serve in traditional Cossack military units, as well as frontier and internal forces. The bill provides for Cossack involvement in the war on terror, in dealing with emergency situations, and in protecting public order. They will also take part in efforts to guarantee state and border security, as well as ecological and fire safety. The federal authorities will also be obliged to give partial funding to the Cossacks from the state budget, and to grant them certain tax benefits.

But the Cossack renaissance is not welcomed by some human-rights activists, who sense in it a tinge of rising Great Russian chauvinism.

"Needless to say, it is difficult to object to people's desire to unite. If they want to guard the frontiers, let them do this as a version of contract service," Lev Ponomaryov, head of For Human Rights, said. "But it is alarming that they may be given the right to maintain law and order within these borders. Experience shows that the Cossacks have their own interpretation of law and order."

Russian Cossacks are used to skeptical attitudes. But today they have a powerful supporter in Putin, who views the so-far-unregistered 10 million Cossacks as his potential assistants in consolidating Russia's integrity and ensuring its citizens' security. The Kremlin expects the Cossacks to reaffirm their historical reputation as patriots, defenders of the state and champions of moral values.

The gist of the Cossack phenomenon is manifest in a popular anecdote about Napoleon, who is quoted as saying: "Give me 20 thousand Cossacks and I will conquer the whole of Europe and even the whole world." The Don atamans sent him a prompt reply: "Send us 20,000 French women, and in 20 years you will get 20,000 Cossacks. But they will serve Russia nonetheless."