Vienna, March 10 – A GRU unit that participated in the attack on Grozny in 1994 staged a demonstration yesterday denouncing Moscow’s decision to disband it, with some participants saying that what Chechen militant Shamil Basayev had threatened Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov is now carrying out.
More than 1,000 people, including officers of the 67th Brigade of GRU Special Assignment Forces GRU Forces slated to be disbanded, staged a protest in Berdsk, a city of 90,000 people near Novosibirsk, according to TASS-Sibir and other news agencies (www.news.babr.ru/?IDE=51467 and www.dpni.org/articles/lenta_novo/11659/).
Commanders of the unit had forbidden their subordinates to attend, and some media outlets, including “Kommersant,” said that no one in uniform was among the participants. That paper also said that local officials had reported that only about 300 people had taken part, far less that the regional agencies had said (www.kommersant.ru/doc.aspx?DocsID=1134119).
But all sources agree that the protesters demanded that Moscow reverse its order to disband the unit, stop its current effort at military reform, and fire Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov who demonstrators suggested was implementing the plans of the Chechen separatists rather than meeting the needs of the country’s national defense.
Moreover, the reports agree that the unit’s personnel enjoy the support not only of the local authorities, including the city council, but also of their Duma deputy, Anatoly Lokot’ (KPRF), who promises to present their complaints and demands to President Dmitry Medvedev and other senior officials in Moscow.
Earlier this year, military personnel and their families protested the closure of an aviation training center in Irkutsk, and many had reacted angrily online and in commentaries in the regional press once it became known that the 67th was to be disbanded, something that will create hardships not only for uniformed personnel but also for their families and communities.
The officers and men of the unit, according to the news agencies, do not believe Moscow’s promises to provide them with housing and other support, and they reportedly distrust the plans of the government to eliminate many of the special benefits they are other units now receive. (For more on those plans, see grani.ru/War/Mil_spending/m.148424.html).
But perhaps the primary reason people are so angry about what Moscow has done in this case is that this unit performed heroically in the first post-Soviet Chechen war, took heavy losses, and was highly decorated, so the decision of the authorities to close it down in the name of saving money has outraged many.
As one commentator pointed out, this unit was among the first to enter Grozny in December 1994 and the last to leave in October 1996. For these efforts, which cost 45 of its members their lives, more than 3,000 men were given medals, including six who were named Heroes of the Russian Federation (http://lenta.ru/articles/2009/03/05/disbandment/).
According to “Kommersant,” “experts believe that the geography of protest of this kind will increase.” As long as such demonstrations are confined to regions far from Moscow, the powers that be will likely be able to ensure that coverage of them will play down their significance, perhaps by suggesting that they are only an effort by the army to get more money. But even if such demonstrations do not spread to Moscow or St. Petersburg – and the defense ministry will certainly do everything it can to prevent that – protests like the one yesterday near Novosibirsk must be a matter of concern to Moscow elite in the current climate for at least two reasons.
On the one hand, such GRU special forces are among the regime’s first shock troops to be used against demonstrators and thus constitute the last line of defense in the event of real unrest. Consequently, the level of anger in them that such protests point to could lead some in the government not to issue orders that might not be obeyed.
And on the other, the willingness of the KPRF and local officials to line up with the military against Moscow could represent the kind of threat to Moscow’s control of some of its regions, and the danger of that could provoke the kind of response from the center that would lead to clashes among the regime’s supporters rather than between them and the population.