Yeltsin’s 1996 pledge had been directed not merely at improving the army’s professionalism, but also at addressing widely held concerns among the Russian population over the dismal–and at times dangerous–conditions which confront the country’s conscript soldiers. Brutality in the barracks–called “hazing”–has been a much publicized phenomenon in Russia since before the Soviet Union’s dissolution, and there is little reason to believe that the current military leadership has made any significant progress in this area. Indeed, a secret General Staff study reportedly concludes that the incidence of hazing is rising in the armed forces as part of a more general increase in the army’s criminalization (Moskovsky komsomolets, February 19).
Other sources have reached similar conclusions. The Soldiers’ Mothers Committee, a Moscow-based group which seeks to improve life for Russia’s conscript soldiers, said recently that conditions for the conscript army have sunk to their lowest level since the 1991 dissolution of the USSR. They also say that problems in this area have become especially severe since the government’s August financial crisis. The Russian Military General Prosecutor’s Office, meanwhile, reports that fifty-seven soldiers died and nearly 3,000 were injured during the first eleven months of 1998 as a result of hazing (Christian Science Monitor, February 1). But an advocate for soldiers’ rights puts the figures much higher, claiming on February 22 that some 2,000 Russian soldiers die each year either directly or indirectly as a result of hazing. Many of these deaths, she claimed, are suicides (Russian agencies, February 22).
Reports such as these suggest why a large number of Russian youths are avoiding the military draft. But, rather than ensuring that life in the armed forces improves for the country’s conscripts, the Defense Ministry appears of late to be more intent on tracking down draft dodgers and deserters. In January of this year the military prosecutor’s office announced that military authorities had arrested nearly one thousand such soldiers in a major four-day operation aimed at locating and apprehending deserters (see the Monitor, January 26). This week military authorities launched another such operation. This one was said to have netted nearly 700 deserters (Itar-Tass, February 22). Russian Chief Military Prosecutor Yuri Demin vowed last month that authorities would manage “sooner or later” to find “everyone who has evaded military service” (Russian TV, January 22).
YELTSIN AND PRIMAKOV: WE BOTH KEEP OUR JOBS UNTIL 2000.