The recent Human Rights Watch report on the abuse of conscripts within the Russian army has provoked outrage in Moscow, eliciting strong denials and attempts by the authorities to downplay the scale of the problem. The U.S.-based group asserted that first-year conscripts in the Russian army are subject to wholesale abuse, humiliation, assault, and harassment by their seniors within a degenerating and self-perpetuating system in which the abused becomes abuser through time. It forces hundreds to commit suicide, while others flee the barracks in despair. The allegations and stories of abuse collected within the report do not reveal a new phenomenon, but it does underscore the depth and scope of the culture of abuse within the barracks and points to the need for radical measures to overhaul the manning system (Interfax, October 20).
In the first half of 2004, 25 soldiers died as a result of bullying by more senior conscripts, and 12 others allegedly died as a result of physical abuse from their officers. Another 109 committed suicide, 60 of them as a result of institutional bullying. This is the official view of Alexander Savenkov, Russia’s Chief Military Prosecutor. Nonetheless, Human Rights Watch believes the actual number of deaths is far higher, since official statistics only include those cases that actually reach court.
The anecdotal illustrations of this culture of abuse, collected in the report, suggest that it is commonplace for conscripts to stub out cigarettes on the backs of younger conscripts, extort money, demand they perform demeaning tasks, and regularly physically beat them. Valentina Melnikova, chairwoman of the Union of Soldiers’ Mothers, said that such practices are rampant and evident in most military units throughout Russia, including Russia’s elite regiments. “A conscript soldier has no rights — no right to call or write home, no right to timely health care, no right to receive proper food. He has rights to nothing!” Melnikova said.
The most serious aspect of the report was not just the assimilation of human rights abuses within the Russian army, and the extent of its widespread existence, but the central conclusion that an army denied adequate food, medical care, and regularly beaten cannot function effectively. This fundamental flaw has long been suspected within Russian security circles, though achieving consensus on military reform addressing such difficult issues has proven elusive.
That such a negative report should provoke outrage within Russian power ministries is hardly surprising. Its basis, however, suggests some evidence for understanding the context and parameters of the problem. Major-General Alexander Nikitin, spokesman for the Main Military Prosecutors Office, predictably dismissed the findings as failing to correspond to reality. He questioned the representative nature of the research since it was based upon 100 interviews conducted within 50 units across Russia. This cross section would necessarily reflect a more negative image of life in the barracks, according to Nikitin. He also asserted that the report failed to consider some advances made by law-enforcement bodies in protecting the rights of servicemen. Statistical data from the Main Prosecutor’s Office revealed that bullying in barracks-related crimes was reported in no more than 80% of the army’s units. Nikitin’s view was essentially to say that Human Rights Watch had exaggerated its case (Itar-Tass, RIA Novosti, October 21).
Counter measures aimed at reducing the problem have been enacted, though little attention had been given to this in the report. These include establishing a hot line service, various emergency centers, closer monitoring within army units, and cooperation with public organizations, such as those formed by conscripts’ parents, such measures, in Nikitin’s view, helped law enforcement bodies address these issues and expose greater numbers of violations in the armed forces.
Yet the problem clearly exists, attested to in Nikitin’s own statistics: in 2004 more than 1,500 criminal cases have been filed over breaches of regulations, and more than 1,000 cases brought involving assault and battery. Judges have so far convicted 3,200 servicemen this year.
Here the heart of the problem is exposed. Definition and perception differ greatly between Russian power structures and the West, which seeks to understand a degenerating military culture. The Russian Ministry of Defense has proven singularly incapable of either facing up to the nature of the problem or in remedying the underlying causes of brutality within the barracks. First, the continued length of conscript service for two years, involving drafting recruits into the army twice each year, creates fours tiers of recruits within the barracks at any one time. In the absence of adequate medical care, social conditions, career structure, and other employment incentives, the recruits have established a counter-culture that turns soldiers against each other and perpetuates abuse. The Union of Soldiers’ Mothers advances the cause of professionalizing the armed forces as a possible solution, though this would be too costly for the state to implement in full. More attention must be given to analyzing and assessing this within the experiments, already underway in professionalizing higher-readiness formations. Finally, as the Russian military continues to grapple with the effects of bullying in its armed forces, it must examine other mechanisms through which the culture will be undermined, such as introducing more pastoral care and fostering greater officer liaison with their men within the barracks. While denials and rhetoric are evoked in these discussions, the challenges will remain insurmountable.