Even though Moscow successfully eliminated Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov in an apparently carefully planned and long-term operation in March, there is little sign of progress towards peace in the breakaway republic. In fact, the number of Russian troops stationed there has recently risen by 5,000 to 85,000 men. Moreover nearly all observers maintain that the war will spread to the already inflamed North Caucasus. Part of the problem is the unaccountability of the Russian civilian and military officials involved in prosecuting the war. Their recent contradictory statements about military personnel requirements have created a scandal inside Russia.
Long ago, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced that military conscripts would not be sent to “hot spots” like Chechnya. Instead, so-called “professionals” would be used, because they allegedly made for better soldiers.
Likewise, on March 25 General Alexander Baranov, the commander-in-chief of the North Caucasus Military District, announced that there were no plans to enlist residents of the Chechen Republic to serve on a contract basis in Russian military subunits. Major General Said-Selim Tsuyev, Chechnya’s military commissar, repeated this on April 6, even though Chechen authorities had repeatedly suggested setting up railway and military labor service battalions whose members would then be drafted into the Russian Army. The number of men involved includes the 8,000 who have been registered out of the 70,000 men in Chechnya eligible for conscription.
However, on April 7 Rudnik Dudaev, secretary of the Chechen Security Council, announced that a draft would occur in Chechnya. But the men called up will serve only in Chechnya; they will be divided among the 42nd Division of the Russian Army, the Interior Ministry, and the Chechen Emergency Situations Forces.
The apparent contraction on draft and service terms might appear to be another example of the infamous situation in Russia where the government’s left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. However, that conclusion would be premature.
In Ingushetia reports and letters from soldiers have surfaced suggesting another version of this bait-and-switch tactic. Specifically the 503rd Regiment is converting from conscript to contract service, but lacks sufficient contract personnel. Therefore, conscripts are being forced to sign service contracts, essentially exchanging one form of military serfdom for another.
This is not an isolated occurrence and suggests a deliberate state policy to meet the required quota for “professionals.” The 42nd Division, which is supposed to be supplied with Chechens, will allegedly become a contract unit. But in fact these contract service personnel are recruits who were conscripted about six months ago and then forced to sign service contracts.
In despair, soldiers in the 503rd Regiment announced they would escape, since their officers said there was no appeal and that the law could not help them. Indeed, soldiers are often told that if they do not sign or if they break the contract, then they will not be paid. One soldier wrote that he received 4,000 rubles but then had to pay half of it to his commander as a bribe. Not surprisingly, this conscript does not want to become a contract soldier. Thus the situation in Chechnya closely resembles that which is occurring in Ingushetia and probably elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the usual brutal treatment of recruits continues, and beginning April 1 governors, as well as the government, are responsible for activities linked to conscription. As part of this process, they must find 42,000 “volunteers” along with some 157,000 conscripts. Once conscripts sign their military oath, they supposedly are given contracts and paid some 15,000 rubles monthly. The General Staff in Chechnya insists that there have been no complaints. But as the anecdotal evidence from Ingushetia shows, this is unlikely to be true.
Consequently it is not surprising that the Russian military complains about the low quality of recruits. Nor is it surprising that the organized thievery of resources supposedly earmarked for reconstruction in Chechnya and throughout the North Caucasus continues unabated.
This brutality, lawlessness, and resort to new and more creative forms of serfdom masquerading as contracted service only underscore the urgency of placing the entire military establishment — from the president down — under a comprehensive regime of accountability to the law. It also is obvious that the Russian military can neither win nor police Chechnya or the North Caucasus, although they could easily inflame the entire region permanently.
The recent eruption of demonstrations in Bashkortostan and Ingushetia, and the explosion of lawless violence throughout the North Caucasus, on top of the relentless terrorism carried out in Chechnya by all sides make the resolution of the North Caucasus issue perhaps the most urgent security challenge confronting Russia. And because launching the reforms needed to stabilize that area are so unlikely if left to Moscow’s initiative, it should be apparent to all that the North Caucasus is fast becoming not just a Russian crisis, but one that could quickly spread and become internationalized. With that perspective in mind, isn’t it better that the parties concerned with Russia’s stability begin acting preemptively now, rather than waiting for the inevitable conflagration to spread beyond Russia’s borders?
(Ekho Moskvy, March 11; Russky kuryer, March 11; Itar-Tass, March 25, April 8; Interfax-Grozny, April 6; Interfax-Moscow, April 7; Nezavisimaya gazeta, April 1; Vremya novostei, April 8)