Monday, December 22, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russian Defense Ministry, Kazan Agree to Set Up Tatar Units in the Russian Army

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 22 – The Russian defense ministry and the Republic of Tatarstan have agreed on an experimental program to set up military units consisting only of draftees from Tatarstan, a measure Moscow officials say would help eliminate ethnic crime within the Russian army but a step some analysts suggest could lead to the fragmentation of that military force.
The joint decision to create “national Tatar units” on a trial basis in Orenburg and Samara oblasts was taken after human rights activists and families of draftees visited the Tots Garrison where an ethnic Tatar recently fled from his unit because of the mistreatment he received from soldiers of other ethnic groups (
While the creation of such units could reduce the amount of “dedovshchina” as such mistreatment is commonly called, it creates “a very bad precedent,” according to retired general Leonid Ivashov of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, because now other groups will want the same treatment, a trend that would undermine military cohesion and the chain of command.
That view is certain to be shared by many in the Russian political elite, but senior officials in the defense ministry appear likely to support the creation of such national units given the problems they have faced from the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee and even appeals to the European Court of Human Rights.
In tsarist times, units complected on an ethnic basis were a commonplace, with the so-called “Savage Division” consisting of units made up of various Caucasian nationalities only the most famous because of the willingness of its commanders to defend the tsar and the tsarist system when almost no one else would
But in the Soviet period, such units were permitted only during the complicated days of the Russian Civil War (1918-1922) and then again during World War II (1941-1945), when the regime was prepared to make compromises with the population in the name of saving the communist system.
Since 1991, many non-Russian groups, led by the Tatars, have called for the establishment of ethnically based units, not only to end the mistreatment many of their soldiers currently experience in the army but also to generate a sense of national pride and to prevent the army from becoming a “russianizing” experience.
Moscow has resisted such a step until now, and this “experiment” may prove stillborn, although having allowed the announce to be made and with the defense ministry having indicated that it supports the measure, the Russian government may well face resistance to any retreat on this line even as it is certain to face demands for such units from other ethnic groups.
Perhaps the first of these additional demands will come from Chechnya, where the republic’s president Ramzan Kadyrov has already said that he favors the formation of Chechen units not only within the borders of his own republic but in the Russian army and fleet more generally.
Meanwhile, in another development that highlights growing restiveness among the Tatars is a report in today’s “Kommersant” suggesting that that nationality has now found allies among the neighboring Bashkirs for its position on restoring the regional and ethnic component of school curricula (
On Saturday, the paper said, a group of 150 Bashkir activists, some of whom are members of the Kuk Bure national movement and the Vatan Party, organized a demonstration in the square in front of the republic television center in Ufa and said they would “join forces with Tatar defenders of the national-regional component’ of the educational program.
While it is unclear just how far this cooperation will proceed or whether it will extend to other republics in the Middle Volga as well, Moscow observers told the paper that even this level of inter-republic and inter-ethnic cooperation against the central authorities represented a serious warning that the latter needed to reconsider what they are doing.

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