Vienna, August 31 – North Caucasians form an increasing fraction of the Russian military, the result of growing draft quotas, ethnic Russian demographic decline and draft resistance, and the desire of many non-Russians from that region to serve as soldiers, with some men from that region even bribing their way into uniform.
But that trend, “Nasha Versiya” reporter Aleksandr Stepanov says, is leading not only to an increase in the number of ethnic clashes within the Russian military but also to a rise in the number of incidents of insubordination with some North Caucasians refusing to obey orders they feel are demeaning (versia.ru/articles/2009/aug/31/kriminal_v_armii).
And he reports that none of the policies Moscow has adopted so far, including limiting the number of North Caucasians drafted from a particular republic or assigned to a given unit or sending them to distant garrisons where any conflicts that do occur are less likely to be noticed by the media, has worked, leaving officers are a loss as to what they can and should try next.
Unlike many ethnic Russians who do not want to serve in the military, North Caucasians, given their national traditions and the economic problems of their homelands, view it as an attractive option, and some are bribing military commissariats 10,000 to 30,000 rubles (300 to 900 US dollars) to overlook criminal pasts or health problems that would lead to deferments.
That in combination with the demographic differences between ethnic Russians and North Caucasians mean that the latter are not only increasing absolutely but also relatively to the former, something that Stepanov says has led to an increase in problems, including ethnic clashes, insubordination, and crime in units where they serve.
According to military prosecutors, the “Nasha Versiya” reporter says, more than 20 percent of all military crimes now take place in units with significant numbers of soldiers and sailors from the Caucasus. Uncertain how to respond, “commanders of all ranks are throwing up their hands because they don’t know how to combat manifestations of inter-ethnic hostility.”
One place where Russian officials have reduced the draft quota is Daghestan. In the past, approximately 12,000 men from that republic were drafted each year, but Moscow cut the number to 1800 in the spring of 2008 although was forced to increase it to 3500 for this year’s spring draft. But Stepanov notes, “the number [there] wanting to serve was all the same greater.”
As a result, North Caucasians who want to serve are adopting various strategies, bribing local officials, according to Vladimir Milovanov, a prosecutor in the North Caucasus Military District, or listing as their home addresses those of relatives elsewhere in the Russian Federation making it more likely that they will be drafted.
Moscow has taken more draconian measures with respect to Chechens hoping to serve. From 1991 to 2005, it did not try to draft anyone from that republic, both because parents there feared their children would be mistreated by officers with experience in the fighting in that republic and because commanders feared what the Chechens might do if they were draft.
In 2005, however, Moscow drafted 200 Chechens, something Vladimir Putin and others proclaimed an indication of Russian military success there. “But,” Stepanov reports, “from the first days of their service they undermined the authority of their commanders by seeking special privileges which were not allowed by the rules.”
The Chechen draftees “refused to eat in mess halls, to wear uniforms and to remain around the clock on the territory of their units.” As a result, “and without much noise,” they were “immediately sent home,” and after that, the Russian military more or less completely “stopped” drafting Chechens.
Today, Stepanov continues, “soldiers called up from the North Caucasus are sent to serve further from their homelands and measures are taken in order to spread them about in units in various regions.” Moscow’s calculation is obvious: if something happens “with an ethnic shading, there are fewer changes that the broader society will find out about it.”
But the Russian government’s hopes in that respect have not always proved out, as reporting about the revolt of North Caucasians on the island of Kunashir in the Pacific Ocean in December 2006 clearly showed and as efforts by groups like the Soldiers Mothers Committees have expanded.
One commander told Stepanov that “the main thing is not to allow a dangerous concentration of Caucasian soldiers in any one unit.” In that commander’s opinion, such soldiers are “the most problematic” but not because of inter-ethnic relations but because of “their culture and upbringing,” which leads them to refuse to obey orders to work as cooks, for example.
A solution some have proposed is the formation of units consisting of draftees from a single republic or even from a single nationality. Tatarstan has backed this, and Chechnya realized it in the form of the East and West GRU battalions. But if such arrangements proceed, Stepanov says, it could lead to the disintegration of the Russian military.
Although the share of North Caucasians in the Russian military is far higher than it was in Soviet times, Soviet officers too had to deal with some of the same challenges, and it appears that some Russian commanders are studying that experience, including Soviet-era “unwritten quota[s]” on the number of Caucasians in units – “not more than three per company.”
And Russian commanders are also thinking about the need for better ideological work in units with North Caucasians, with religious groups possibly playing the role the Komsomol did before 1991. But there is a catch: if Christian and Muslim soldiers have separate religious services, that could further divide the Russian army rather than unite it.
Moreover, if the number of Muslim soldiers is kept below the 10 percent that officials say would qualify them for having their own mullah, Stepanov suggests, that almost certainly would exacerbate ethnic feelings still further, with Muslim troops in such cases undoubtedly seeing this as yet another example of Russian discrimination against them.