[A-List] Russia: army brutality
michael.keaney at mbs.fi
Fri Dec 13 06:11:59 MST 2002
Russia's conscript army frozen in communist past
By Andrew Jack in Moscow
Financial Times: December 13 2002
Sergei should never have been drafted into the Russian army, but he began
his two-year stint in good faith. It was only after several months of
appalling food, beatings and demands for money by other soldiers in his unit
that he decided to desert.
A weak, 18-year-old loner whose health problems included childhood
meningitis, he was conscripted because he could not provide the medical
documents to prove his illnesses. His refusal to finish his military service
cost him three months in prison.
His story of violence, misery and alcohol-sodden evenings in the total
absence of officers is a familiar tale for thousands of deserters each year.
It is also at the core of the broader problems facing Russia's armed forces
as discussion grows about the latest round of proposed military reforms.
When George Robertson, Nato's secretary general, visited Moscow this week,
he spoke of the challenges of terrorism: "The military forces of yesterday -
huge arsenals of battle tanks, static headquarters and inflexible soldiers -
are not only useless in meeting these new threats. They also divert scarce
defence resources away from urgent and pressing modernisation."
In theory, he was preaching to the converted. Sergei Ivanov, the defence
minister appointed by President Vladimir Putin in 2001 with a mandate to
bring about reform, announced last month that the era when "the task of the
army was survival" was over and the aim today was "raising the professional
skills of soldiers".
While some soldiers have been hired on professional contracts since 1992, he
promised more by next June as the centrepiece of a wider overhaul.
But the task is enormous. Under Mr Ivanov is a Soviet-era monolith still
locked into a cold-war mentality with substantial interest in maintaining
the status quo. It employs about 2m people and spends more than $50bn a
year, according to some estimates.
Valentina Dmitrievna, head of the Soldiers' Mothers Committee, is sceptical.
"I have heard discussions about military reform since 1990. Boris Yeltsin
promised the abolition of conscription by 2000," she says. "This latest
effort is just another bureaucrats' game to push the timetable beyond 2011
when Putin and Ivanov will no longer be in power."
In Ms Dmitrievna's cramped office in Moscow, a queue of nervous mothers and
deserters seek advice. Bulging files bear details of nearly 2,000 conscripts
from Moscow alone who walked out this year. She estimates up to 50,000
desert each year in Russia, most with stories of being beaten, robbed or
humiliated. Conscription is one of the most powerful legacies of communism,
delivering some 350,000 young recruits a year for their two-year terms.
It continues to haunt Russians with teenage boys today, and many will do
anything to protect them from bullying, humiliation and even death.
One man put his career on the line, hoping a job transfer to the US could
help his son avoid the draft. A Moscow woman is already saving towards the
$5,000 bribe friends say it will cost for her 14-year-old to avoid the draft
when he turns 18.
But many within the armed forces oppose change. Top military men fear a
professional army - with higher salaries and better barracks - will cost too
much, and suspect it will be hard to find enough recruits. Mr Ivanov
placates them by stressing that some form of conscription will remain.
Some officers still hold a deep-seated belief in the need to remain ready
for war against western Europe. And there is a resistance to delegating
authority to non-commissioned officers, the backbone of army discipline and
training in many other countries.
For more cynical commanders, conscripts are a source of free labour - and
money, if they are hired out to others, or even sold into near-slavery in
the North Caucasus, according to the worst stories.
And for those administering the draft, corruption helps perpetuate the
The real victims are the conscripts themselves. Aside from the several
thousand casualties in Chechnya since 1999, Ms Dmitrievna estimates more
than 2,000 die each year from accidents, murder or suicide.
Lieutenant-General Vasily Smirnov, head of the General Staff's mobilisation
unit, doubts such figures: "These mothers would do better to concentrate on
feeding their sons well so that they can be strong and fulfil their
constitutional obligations," he says.
He concedes that there were problems in the mid-1990s, and personally he
would like to see a professional army. But in the meantime, he argues that
the number of allegations examined by military prosecutors has fallen in
There are certainly some signs of hope. Last week Alvaro Gil-Robles, the
Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, hosted a closed session with
representatives of European armies on human rights and the military.
He sees it as positive that the first ever such meeting took place in
Moscow, while highlighting a distinction between most participants' idea of
"individual human rights" and the Russians, who stressed the "collective " -
the state comes first.
Meanwhile, incidents such as that in which 53 protesting conscripts walked
out of their unit in Volgograd this September, or the soldier who last month
killed several of his colleagues in the Caucasus after eating hallucinogenic
mushrooms, serve as a painful reminder to Mr Ivanov of the challenges ahead.
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