Downsized And Out In Russia
SHCHOLKOVO, RUSSIA — When Russian Army officers stationed near this drab industrial town close to Moscow don't get paid, which is often, they go on "bombing runs."
Civilians need not be concerned: The term refers to nothing more harmful than driving around town cruising for taxi fares.
But driving a gypsy cab is hardly a career. And as Russia downsizes its Army under the ax of military reform, hundreds of thousands of soldiers across the country are being forced to retool fast for civilian life.
By the end of next year, the Russian armed forces must shed half a million troops, slimming to an overall strength of 1.2 million, according to President Boris Yeltsin's latest decrees.
Those cuts come on top of the 1.1 million men and women who have been discharged since 1992.
These casualties of reform fill a pool of potentially dangerous discontents that generals-turned-populist-politicians, such as Alexander Lebed, are seeking to exploit.
And the government itself, swamped by more pressing problems, has done little to smooth the path into civilian life for officers obliged to take early retirement, often without a pension.
"We have an annual budget of 30 billion rubles [about $5 million]," says Capt. Valeri Barannovsky, the Defense Ministry official in charge of retraining programs to help former servicemen find new jobs.
"But that is theoretical. I've never seen a kopeck of government money," Captain Barannovsky says.
Foreign funding to retrain
Instead, Moscow has relied on funds from foreign governments. Germany paid approximately $74 million to retrain Soviet officers as part of a deal to have them withdraw quickly from the former East Germany.
And now the British Ministry of Defense has launched courses.
Which is why, one recent rainy afternoon, 36 heads were bent over exercise books in a schoolroom whose floor, walls, curtains, and chalkboard were various shades of sullen brown, while a teacher delivered a lecture on the differences between a bond and a stock.
The Soviet military taught its officers many skills, but market economics was not among them. And a knowledge of business is key to former soldiers seeking a place in the new Russia.
Learning new business skills
Basic courses, run by a college in Shcholkovo, where the military makes up 20 percent of the population, are offered in marketing, labor law, accounting, computers, and tax regulations, among other topics, packed into a four-month diploma.
It is a short course, but the officers already have a lot of skills."In general, they are well disciplined, they are people with initiative, they have loyalty and an ability to get a job done," says Squadron Leader Max Jardim, the Royal Air Force officer overseeing the British project.
The officers are also highly educated. Every officer in the Russian Army must have at least one university degree, and a third of those who have received early discharges in recent years have two degrees.
But they do not always approach civilian life in the right way, says Mr. Jardim, the squad leader.
"Some Russian officers do believe the country owes them something," he says.
"That may be true ... but determining your attitude on the basis that you've been hard done by does not impress anyone when you go to Coca-Cola for a job interview," he says.
Graduate forms a company
This attitude does not appear to have affected Col. Yuri Ignatov, a recent graduate of a retraining course here.
He was not forcibly discharged, but nonetheless sees himself as a victim of military cutbacks.
Colonel Ignatov says he found it difficult to keep urging the men in his regiment to work their hardest when he was unable to pay them. As a result he had trouble sleeping and eventually resigned from the Army on health grounds.
He signed up for the business courses "because I was attracted by the prospect of meeting other businessmen. I wanted to join a firm in the private sector or to found my own company."
Upon graduation, Ignatov did indeed found a company, digging wells and laying pipes to provide running water to the thousands of dachas [popular country cottages] springing up around Moscow.
"I was trained as a geologist, so I knew what to do. But I had no detailed understanding of accounting [before taking a course], and I learned how to conduct a business meeting with a client," he says.
Russian businessmen are still not convinced of the value of hiring former servicemen, regarding them as too likely to be stuck in their Soviet military ways, Barannovsky says. "Small companies are generally founded by young people, and they look for other young people," he points out.
Long road to success
But the courses run so far appear reasonably successful. Jardim, whose program funds new courses at colleges only if he sees that their graduates find work, says that between 60 percent and 80 percent of the men and women going through his courses have found a job within four months of earning their diploma.
Still, this is a drop in the ocean. As demobilized officers stream out of barracks gates into an uncertain future, Jardim says, "across the country, overall, we and other projects are meeting no more than 5 percent of the demand."