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Russia: Putin Takes Steps To Help Cossacks Restore Some Of Their Former Status

Cossack leaders received Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Don region this week to discuss the revival of the legendary Tsarist cavalry corps. Putin in April submitted a bill to the State Duma that would allow Cossacks to serve as soldiers, police, and border guards. Some experts are eyeing the bill with concern, noting that Cossacks have been known for cracking down on ethnic minorities in southern Russia. They fear that the formation of Cossack military units could ignite tensions in the volatile region.

Moscow, 27 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- President Putin this week received a warm welcome from Cossacks of the Don region, in the Cossack settlement of Veshenskaya.

Following decades of repression under Soviet rule, Cossacks are eager to restore some of their former status as Russia's elite cavalry guard.

Many Cossacks are pinning their hopes on a bill that Putin submitted to the State Duma in April that would allow Cossacks to serve in the army, police, and border-guard forces.

This practice is already well established in southern Russia, but Cossack troops do not have a full legal status.

The bill, which would also allow registered Cossack organizations to choose members for service in some military units, has been approved by the State Duma in a first reading.

Vassilii Bondarev is the ataman -- or chieftain -- of the military Cossack association in southern Russia's Tersk region. He told Putin that Cossacks are eager to bring order to the North Caucasus, a region where Cossacks once wielded considerable influence.

"One can defend interests not only through force but also through 'national democracy,'" Bondarev said. "This diplomacy was mastered to perfection by our ancestors, who lived among mountain-dwellers for more than four centuries."

The word "Cossack" is derived from the Turkish word "kazak," meaning "freedom." Having pledged allegiance to the tsar, Cossacks enjoyed a great amount of freedom for centuries until the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917.

Putin, however, made it clear that he is not interested in a powerful and independent Cossack law-enforcement unit. Cossacks troops, he told the atamans, will remain under the government's command:

"Of course, the fight [of Cossacks] against crime and terrorism can be very efficient," Putin said. "But this is above all the responsibility of governmental organs. All auxiliary subdivisions must perform auxiliary functions."

The idea of creating Cossack military units has been received with mixed feelings by defense experts and human rights groups.

Critics say Cossacks do not shy from using violence to repress and expel ethnic minorities and illegal immigrants in southern Russia.

Ivan Safranchuk, director of the Center for Defense Information in Moscow, said the Cossacks only stir up interethnic tensions in southern Russia, which includes war-torn Chechnya.

"Cossacks see themselves as Russia's front-line guards in the North Caucasus, and to a certain extent this is true," Safranchuk said. "On the other hand, Cossacks unfortunately often have nationalist views and display an extremely negative attitude toward other ethnic groups who live in southern Russia. Any nationalist propaganda in the region does a lot of harm to Russia."

Apart from the Cossacks themselves, few seem to believe that the glory of the proud imperial guards can ever be restored in Russia.

Aleksandr Osipov, a Caucasus expert at the Memorial human rights group, said today's Cossacks are far from reflecting the panache of Cossacks of times past.

"The Cossacks now are a sad parody of the former Cossacks," Osipov said. "Who enters Cossack organizations? Former -- or even serving -- police officers, former army officers, or simply losers, collective-farm members who tend to drink too much vodka. On the whole, people with nationalist, archaic views."

Cossacks are credited with contributing to the defeat of Napoleon's troops in 1812 and opening Siberia for colonization, founding dozens of Siberian cities on their way.

They are also believed to have discovered the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia's Far East and crossed the Bering Strait long before Bering himself.