On November 17, the news of mass hazing incidents in the Russian Baltic fleet broke in the media. According to the reports, a group of Dagestani conscript soldiers had harassed their ethnic Russian –or Slavic, as some media outlets preferred to call them– peers for a protracted period. Numerous hazing incidents took place in the town of Pionersky in Russia’s westernmost Kaliningrad oblast and included episodes of Dagestani soldiers robbing their Russians colleagues of their money and personal belongings and forcing them to dance Caucasian dances. The last straw for the Russian conscripts allegedly was when the Dagestanis formed the word Kavkaz (Caucasus) using their bodies to form the letters while one of them filmed it (Komsomolskaya Pravda-Kaliningrad, November 17).
Ethnic-based violence has long been widespread in the Russian army, dating back at least to the early stages of the Soviet army’s development. At the same time, the commanders have habitually been dismissive of the idea of ethnicity being the primary cause of the conflicts. Media received the information about this latest hazing event from unofficial sources, including the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, while the officials from the Baltic fleet at first declined to comment. Russia’s deputy general-prosecutor responsible for affairs inside the military, and Prosecutor-General Sergei Fridinsky, who is Russia’s Chief Military Prosecutor, sent a special group of prosecutors to investigate the situation among the conscript soldiers (Regnum, November 18).
The investigators were quick to dismiss the ethnic character of the crime, stating that not only the Dagestani soldiers, but also soldiers from other regions of Russia took part in violent attacks on their peers (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, November 20). Sergei Neilenko, the investigator for especially important cases, tried to play down the role of ethnicity in the incident, “People of various ethnicities are among the suspects,” he said, continuing: “Also the lawbreakers have no ethnicity –a hooligan is hooligan everywhere. Regarding the word ‘Kavkaz’ [referring to the fifteen soldiers whose bodies were used to form this word], if we remember geography –the Caucasus is big. Sochi [an ethnically Russian city in the Northern Caucasus] is in the Caucasus, too” (www.newkaliningrad.ru, November 19).
Incidents like this regularly happen in the Russian army. While ethnic Chechens are still largely excluded from the military services, Dagestanis, as the largest North Caucasian group, recurrently appear in the news either as the perpetrators or the victims of hazing in the army. Some observers say that the incidents signify not only the army’s shortcomings, but also manifest the tensions that exist within society.
In 2008, a group of Dagestani soldiers attacked a military reconnaissance unit in Samara region, beating up the soldiers and stealing their personal belongings. That incident resulted in three Dagestanis receiving short-term prison sentences (www.svpressa.ru, November 20).
In July of this year, a group of over 40 new conscripts from Dagestan were severely beaten up in Altai Krai (www.infox.ru, July 8). The perpetrators of that crime were sentenced to various prison sentences, but the prosecution did not find that ethnicity was a factor in the incident (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, November 19).
Prosecutors’ persistent attempts to conceal ethnic hatred as one of the main causes of hazing in the Russian army may indicate that the Russian authorities are afraid of sparking mass anti-Caucasian protests among the Russian population of the country. According to the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights, over 100 xenophobia-related attacks took place in the country in the period from January to July 2009 alone. Thirty-seven people were killed in the attacks, twenty of them in Moscow and Moscow Oblast (www.antirasizm.ru).
“There have always been incidents in the army involving conscripts from the North Caucasus, but only in those military units in which the commanders did not take proper prevention measures,” said the former commander of the Baltic fleet, Admiral Vladimir Valuev (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, November 20).
However, there are significant new features of the present situation in the army compared to previous periods. During Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s December 2008 annual televised radio phone-in, he was baffled by a question from Dagestan in which the questioner claimed that the Dagestanis had difficulties in signing up for the conscript service in the Russian military and even had to pay bribes to be drafted. Putin wondered: “Is the army paid-for now? Some people can hardly be lured into the army, when others ask [to be drafted to the military service], but are not accepted.” He promised to look into the matter.
Over the past two decades the Russian military has invariably faced a shortage of conscripts that can be drafted, despite cuts in the overall number of military personnel. This has been due to the sharply declining birthrates in the country and widespread shirking of military service by Russians. In Dagestan, however, with its high birthrate and high unemployment, the situation has dramatically changed recently, and working in the military in the capacity of a contract soldier has become an attractive prospect for many young people in the republic. According to Russian law, contract soldiers have an obligation to serve their military conscript tours of duty in order to qualify for contract military service. So Dagestanis have a clear incentive to get drafted as conscript soldiers in order to be able to find a military job afterwards (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru, December 4, 2008).
Declining ethnic Russian rates of conscript service and increasing Dagestani rates of conscript service has led to a relative increase of the Dagestani soldiers in the ranks of the Russian army, which contributes to the flaring up of existing tensions. This tension is acquiring a particularly disturbing hue for Moscow, given the persistent instability of the security situation in the North Caucasus.