In Russia, an army of deserters

A model program for military reform stalls due to lack of funds and personnel.

Anatoly deserted from his Army unit just two months after being inducted, after he and other conscripts were beaten with shovel handles by older soldiers during an "education session."

The 19-year-old says the new draftees were told they had to "earn their keep" by begging and breaking into nearby civilian homes to steal money and valuables. "I'm not against Army service," says Anatoly, who was assigned to a unit near the central Russian town of Narafominsk. "I'm willing to serve in any other unit, but not that one."

Anatoly, and thousands more like him, are a sign that the Kremlin's ambitious effort to reform the military, announced a year ago, may be running out of steam.

Breaking decades of secrecy on the subject, the Defense Ministry conceded this month that 2,265 conscripts deserted in the first half of this year.

But the true number is more like 40,000 annually, according to the Soldiers' Mothers Committees, the only public organization that aids deserters.

In an unusually frank speech last month, Gen. Anatoly Kvashnin, Army chief of staff, admitted that the officer corps is "bogged down in embezzlement and corruption" and that a decade of underfunding and failed reform has left the armed forces in a critical situation.

"The system of compulsory military service in this country is almost indistinguishable from prison," says Natalya Shvol, who is in charge of processing deserters who come to Soldiers' Mothers' Moscow office. "In my experience, no young man runs away from his unit except under the most extreme conditions. Many of these boys describe intolerable treatment, including savage beatings, torture, extortion, lurid threats, and routine humiliation."

Hunched in tattered army coats, sometimes shivering with fear, dozens of deserters collect every day in a dingy corridor at the Moscow committee office. Denis, thin and taciturn, ran away from his Moscow region Army unit repeatedly, complaining of continual beatings and insults at the hands of officers and older soldiers. His mother, sitting with him, says she returned him to the barracks three times, believing his commanding officer's assessment that Denis just has "a weak character." Now she says she understands that the boy is genuinely terrified of the Army camp and can't go back, so she brought him to the Soldiers' Mothers. "I don't know what to do with him," she says, twisting her scarf in her hands. "I can't understand what's going on in this country at all."

The Mothers organization runs what might be described as "halfway house" military units – in cooperation with government prosecutors – where deserters are brought back under Army jurisdiction while their cases are examined. Valentina Melnikova, national chair of the Soldiers' Mothers Committees, says it is the only legal way to help them. She says that more than half of deserters who give themselves up under this program receive medical discharges and most others are transferred to new military units.

"When a deserter comes to us, we tell him the first thing he must do is get back within the law," Ms. Melnikova says. "Then we try to find ways to save him from returning to the unit where he was abused, and we usually succeed. The main priority is to relieve the boy from the charge of desertion, which in this country entails very serious criminal penalties. There is no statute of limitations, so it means a ruined life."

Down from the Soviet-era peak of 5 million, the Russian armed forces have about 2 million personnel, including some 600,000 conscripts, who serve a compulsory two years. Twice-yearly draft campaigns bring in about a quarter-million young men, but about two-thirds of those eligible avoid serving by arranging legal student or medical exemptions.

Inductees tend to be youths who are too uneducated, poor, badly connected or, ironically, too patriotic to wangle a draft deferment. "Within a month of the regular conscription intake, the boys start turning up in our office with tales that would curl your hair," says Natalya Serdyukova, chair of the Soldiers' Mothers Committee in the southern Russian city of Sochi. "I cannot understand why the Army spends so much resources on rounding these youths up, and so pathetically little on feeding, training, and caring for them once they're in the service."

A year ago President Vladimir Putin announced a plan to transform the oversized 19th-century conscript Army into a smaller, modern all-volunteer service by 2010. He decreed a one-year experiment to turn the 76th Airborne Division, based in Pskov, into an all-professional model unit that would be a template for reform.

But last month, the trial program was shelved for lack of funds to attract and keep suitable volunteers. "Military reform has run into a brick wall, due to resistance from the officer corps and insufficient resources to change anything," says Sergei Kazyonnov, an expert with the independent Center for National Security and Strategic Studies in Moscow.

The Russian armed forces have more than 2,000 generals, a number experts believe should be trimmed by at least half, and similarly huge numbers of other senior officers. Because of low pay and miserable conditions in the lower ranks, there is no strong contingent of qualified junior officers and noncommissioned officers to work closely with conscripts. An Army junior lieutenant, for example, makes just 2,600 rubles monthly, about $85). This top-heavy structure is widely regarded as the key obstacle to reform.

"Our generals were trained in Soviet times, and think the Soviet Army was the world's greatest," says Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent military expert. "Their aim is to restore that Army, not move forward to a new type of force."

A key part of reform was to be a law on alternative service, to breathe life into the right of conscientious objection stipulated in Russia's 1993 Constitution. But the law, passed by the Duma in July, has appalled human rights workers with its harshness: An applicant must prove his pacifist credentials before a military tribunal, then accept three years' service (instead of two), living in regular barracks under the command of the same officers. "Those on alternative service will live in identical conditions to other conscripts, for a longer period of time, and their only privilege will be not to bear arms," says Vladimir Urban, a military expert with the liberal Novye Izvestiya newspaper. "It just looks like a punishment prescribed for those who don't want to serve."

Russian officials have at least been forced to acknowledge the increasing desertions. On Sept. 9, 54 young soldiers walked away from an Army firing range near Volgograd, and marched to Mother's Right, a local human rights group, to complain they had been systematically brutalized by their officers. The episode led Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov to threaten commanders with "serious penalties" when their conscripts run away. "This sort of thing happens because officers don't work properly with people," Mr. Ivanov fumed in a Sept. 12 speech to the Duma.

Experts say Mr. Putin's overhaul is stalled, at least for now. "Real military reform would require a lot of concentrated political will to carry out," says Igor Bunin, head of the Center for Political Technologies, an independent think tank. "At least until the coming round of parliamentary and presidential elections [December 2003 and March 2004], I'm afraid there is very little hope for this."

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