A Eurasianet partner post from RFE/RL
BUDVA, Montenegro -- When the commander of the newly created "Balkan Cossack Army" addressed his officers last month, he needed a translator.
Self-styled Cossack General Viktor Zaplatin, a Russian, was "unanimously" selected to head the new organization at its founding meeting in the Montenegrin port town of Kotor on September 11.
"The Orthodox world is one world," Zaplatin said. "Here we see Serbs, Montenegrins, Russians, and Belarusians."
The solemn ceremony was presided over by Serbian Orthodox priest Momchilo Krivokapic and a phalanx of bikers from the pro-Kremlin Russian motorcycle gang Night Wolves -- whose leader, Aleksandr Zaldostanov, is close to President Vladimir Putin.
Members of some 26 Cossack organizations attended, each claiming to represent some 50 Cossack "fighters." The organizations were from Serbia, the ethnic Serbian entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina (Republika Srpska), Montenegro, Macedonia, Greece, and Bulgaria. The purpose of the Balkan Cossack Army is unclear, and representatives of the member organizations declined to discuss it with RFE/RL.
Cossacks, who originated as self-governing, militarized communities that played an important policing and defense role in the Russian Empire's sparsely populated border regions from the 16th to the early 20th centuries, have few historical ties to the Balkans. After the 1917 Bolshevik coup in Russia, about 5,000 Cossacks found their way to the Balkans, but most of them soon continued on to Western Europe.
The main Cossack organization in Serbia now, the St. Sava Cossack Stanitsa, was formed only in 2011 by the Russia-based Central Cossack Army, whose commander is appointed directly by Putin. The Serbian affiliate declares on its website that Western values are "distant and foreign" to Serbs and that "Putin's Russia is like a beacon in the darkness surrounding the peoples of the Balkans."
The organization's purpose is "to counter the destructive, anti-Serb historical project."
Resisting the 'Foreign' West
Kotor was selected as the site of the creation of the Balkan Cossack Army because it hosted a Russian Consulate during the imperial era. Moreover, pro-Russian media in the Balkans have been actively creating the impression that the town will become a NATO base after Montenegro completes the process of joining the alliance. Montenegro, whose pro-Western ruling party won the most votes in the October 16 parliamentary elections but fell short of a majority, is also a candidate for European Union membership.
The Kotor meeting was also addressed by representatives of Russian Cossacks fighting alongside separatists in eastern Ukraine, who passed on greetings from Aleksandr Borodai, a Russian citizen who helped engineer Moscow's annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea and foment the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Balkan Cossack Army leader Zaplatin, who served in the Soviet Army in the 1980s, is a veteran of many armed conflicts that erupted in the wake of the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. He fought in Bosnia in 1992-93, as well as in conflicts in the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in the Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh, and in the Moldovan region of Transdniester.
In a 2013 interview with a publication in Bosnia's Republika Srpska, Zaplatin advocated the partition of Bosnia and called the 1995 Dayton agreement that ended the war there "a historical injustice."
"The Serbian nation is defending itself, but this is interpreted as separatism and war crimes," Zaplatin said. "I think that the independence of Republika Srpska is inevitable. The Serbian people must decide its own fate. It is very important that the friendship between the Serbs and Russia always be a top priority. We must always help them by all possible means."
Zaplatin is described in the pro-Russian press in Serbia as "the official representative of the Union of Volunteers, which is directly associated with Vladimir Putin." Sources told RFE/RL that Zaplatin coordinates the activities of Cossacks and Russian "volunteers" in the Balkans under the direct supervision of Borodai.
Advancing the 'Russian World'
In February, Zaplatin participated in a gathering of Serbian veterans of the Balkan wars and of Russian "volunteers" in the Russia House cultural center in Belgrade, the offices of the Russian state aid agency Rossotrudnichestvo. He told the meeting that he and his comrades "are on the front line in the fight against fascism in the Balkans, on the front line of the fight against the imposition of the values of the so-called West."
One activist with a U.S. Cossack organization, who asked not to be identified because the individual is not authorized to speak for the organization, told RFE/RL that the Kremlin had been actively trying to co-opt the Cossack community abroad for years, both by influencing the leadership of existing organizations and by creating new ones.
"The new organizations which have been created on behalf of the Russian government have a crystal-clear goal, which is clearly aligned to the agenda of the Russian World [Russky Mir]," the activist wrote in an online interview. "They also offer in some cases paramilitary training to young children in the form of 'summer camps.' They are home to extremely revisionist, racist, and dangerously nationalistic ideologies. Especially in the Balkans, the pan-Slavic and oddly Eurasianist rhetoric is predominant."
Sarajevo-based psychologist and political analyst Srdjan Puhalo says that the presence of the Balkan Cossack Army is divisive, although "they haven't created any problems yet."
"On the one hand, there are Russophiles, particularly among Serbs, who see the activities of the Cossacks as signals that Russia has not forgotten them and that it is worried about the situation in the Balkans," he says.
"On the other hand, many people see their activity as some sort of folklore nostalgia. Some people view them as tourists and some see them as a special-operations unit with unknown missions."
RFE/RL's Russian Service correspondent Yulia Petrovskaya contributed to this report.
Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to email@example.com.
Copyright (c) 2016. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
A Eurasianet partner post from RFE/RL