Ethnic Rivalries Appear to be Tearing Russia’s Army and Society Apart

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 222

On December 10, the official responsible for the military draft in North Ossetia, Colonel Yuri Morozov, stated that the 2010 fall campaign to conscript youth for service in the Russian army was in danger of failing. According to Morozov, only 200 out of the 2,300 young people who were to be drafted into the army before the end of the year had been commissioned. The largest group of draft evaders was from the republic’s capital, Vladikavkaz. Colonel Morozov claimed that many of the potential North Ossetian draftees were hiding in neighboring South Ossetia (, December 10).

North Ossetia has traditionally been regarded as the republic most friendly to Moscow in the North Caucasus, so the failure to draft the required number of conscripts from this territory is a new phenomenon highlighting problems in the Russian military and the general rise of xenophobia in the country.

As recently as the spring of 2010, North Ossetia, with a population of 700,000, garnered 2,000 conscripts to serve in the Russian army and became one of the largest contributors of military manpower in the North Caucasus. In comparison, Kabardino-Balkaria, with a population of 900,000, garners only about 1,000 draftees per conscription drive.

In general, the Russian military appears to be either predisposed against drafting too many conscripts from the North Caucasus or is unable to draft as many as it would like. Ingushetia, with a population of 500,000, was asked for and provided only 200 conscript soldiers in the spring 2008 military draft campaign (RIA Novosti, August 1, 2008). In Dagestan, with a population of 2.7 million, a little more than 4,000 young people are drafted each season and the official website states that “preference is given to those with higher education and possessing driver’s licenses.” This means that not everyone who is eligible for the conscript military service is drafted in the republic (, October 1).

Neighboring Stavropol krai, also with a population of 2.7 million, was asked to supply 4,800 conscripts in the fall of 2010, similar to the Dagestani numbers, but these two territories have very different population structures (, October 9). Dagestan has one of the highest birthrates in Russia, while Stavropol has an average low birthrate, so the number of young people in Dagestan is significantly greater than in Stavropol.

The number of conscripts each territory supplies to the Russian military service is a politically sensitive question. That is probably why there is little information available to the public. Plagued by hazing, underfunding and fear of war casualties in the North Caucasus, many young people choose to avoid military service. Some regions are significantly better off than others. The city of Moscow, with its population of over 10 million, supplied only a little more than 8,000 soldiers for the two draft campaigns, spring and fall, in 2008 (, October 7, 2008).

Hazing in the Russian military remains a serious problem that is often linked to the issue of ethnicity, reflecting rising rival nationalisms across multiethnic Russian regions. Last summer, Dagestani conscripts forced their ethnic Russian peers to lie down on a military campus to form word KAVKAZ (Caucasus) and take pictures of the scene. North Caucasians, meanwhile, are sometimes mistreated by ethnic Russian officers, but there are few reports of this in the Russian press. In 2010, the number of hazing incidents in the Russian army grew by a third. This trend prompted the Russian military to rethink the army’s makeup, proposing to form separate military detachments manned only by ethnic Russians and ethnic North Caucasians. Some experts say that because of the high birthrates among Muslims and low fertility rates among ethnic Russians, over half of Russian army conscripts may soon be of Muslim origin (, October 18).

Chechnya has had military units manned only by ethnic Chechens for a long time now. Chechens are not drafted into the Russian army outside Chechnya. Moscow is also setting up ethnic Dagestani battalions to fight local insurgents in Dagestan. Some experts say that the Russian army is getting dangerously fragmented along ethnic and religious lines.

The problem of the military draft is further complicated by the ongoing low intensity guerrilla war in the North Caucasus. The Russian military has repeatedly promised not to send conscript soldiers to the dangerous zones in the North Caucasus, instead employing contract servicemen for those missions. However, it surfaced this year that Moscow cannot afford to rely only on professional soldiers in the North Caucasus, something that angered many civil activists who have been campaigning for an all-volunteer Russian army (, April 5).

Following the killing of an ethnic Russian soccer fan as the result of a fistfight that escalated into a shootout with North Caucasians in Moscow on December 6, several thousand Russian nationalists took to the streets. Police clashed with the protesters, and there was violence at another Russian nationalist march in Rostov-on-Don, which is much closer to the North Caucasus. In this climate of rising inter-ethnic hostility, specifically between ethnic Russians and North Caucasians, it is likely that the Russian military will face more difficulties in maintaining coherent multi-ethnic military units. If the North Ossetians, who are supposedly the North Caucasians most loyal to Moscow, are refusing to serve in the Russian army, then the problems with staffing the Russian army must be extremely serious.