Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Window on Eurasia: North Caucasian Soldiers in Russian Army Beat Karelian Draftees ‘For Kondopoga’

Paul Goble

Baku, April 1 – North Caucasians serving in the Russian army have beaten two soldiers from Karelia because they blame them for the 2006 clashes in Kondopoga, an indication of the way in which those events continue to have an impact and a story which has led Karelian residents to demand that their sons not be sent to the Caucasus.
These attacks as well as cases of theft and extortion were first reported last Thursday by a Karelian newspaper (http://vesti.karelia.ru/news/social/155), but they have now been amplified by a Russian news agency (http://www.regions.ru/news/2133575/) and an anti-immigrant group (http://www.dpni.org/articles/lenta_novo/8103/).
According to the Karelian paper, Vesti, .groups of North Caucasus soldiers in the Russian military in North Ossetia have beaten as well as extorted money and stolen from two soldiers from Karelia, one whose name suggests he is a Karelian or a Finn and a second whose name is ethnic Russian.
When they attacked the Karelians, the paper said, the North Caucasians indicated that they were simply taking revenge for what ethnic Russians had done in the Karelian city of Kondopoga almost two years ago when a Russian crowd attacked a group of ethnic Chechens.
In at least one of the units the draftees from Karelia found themselves in, both the sergeants and the junior officers were also drawn from North Caucasus nationalities, and the latter did nothing to protect the Karelians from such attacks or to punish those who were responsible.
Their actions created such a climate of fear that the young men from Karelia were afraid to talk about what had happened to their parents or journalists when anyone else was present lest word get back to the North Caucasus soldiers and officers and a new wave of attacks begin.
Desperate to protect their children, the parents of the two soldiers have appealed to prosecutors, the local military commissariat, and finally the media. Prosecutors in the North Caucasus say they are investigating, and journalists have produced this story. But the response of the Karelian military commissar to their complaints is the most important.
Sergei Saburov, a commissariat official, told them that “today “tends of draftees from Karelia now serve in the North Caucasus military district,” the result of a Moscow decision to introduce “the extra-territorial principle” for draftees – the idea that soldiers must do their service outside their own home regions.
(In fact, over the last 15 years, some regions – including not unimportantly Chechnya and some of its neighboring non-Russian republics – have won the right for their draftees to serve near their homes. But most, like Karelia, continue to serve far from home.)
According to Saburov, the Russian defense ministry took this step because it wanted to isolate the many draftees with criminal records from the milieu in which they had operated. However, many believe that the decision was designed to isolate and intimidate soldiers and thus make them available for use against the population.
And as the Karelian paper pointed out, another reason for such an approach is to ensure there are enough soldiers in hotspots in the North Caucasus. If a few men from there have to suffer “for Kondopoga,” that won’t agitate anyone very one “compared to the global interests of the state.”
But these latest attacks have prompted military officials to promise that the two Karelians involved will be transferred to units near their homes to serve the remainder of their time, a decision that they and their parents undoubtedly welcome but one that may prompt others in Karelia and elsewhere to demand similar treatment.
To the extent that happens, the shadow of Kondopoga is likely to loom even larger and darker than that of the 2006 events themselves, likely forcing Moscow, already under pressure because of demographic shortfalls among ethnic Russians, to create ethnically homogeneous units and to keep draftees near their homes during service.
No commander or senior defense ministry official would welcome either of those developments, viewing each as a direct threat to the military’s command and control network. But if clashes between ethnic groups grow, some military leaders may decide that threat is a lesser evil than fighting among soldiers of different ethnic backgrounds.

UPDATE for April 3 – A new poll in Karelia itself shows that relations among ethnic and religious groups there remain tense, even though there has been significant improvements over the last two years as a result of government efforts to calmthe situation after Kondopoga (http://www.islam.ru/rus/2008-04-01/#20458).

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