Vienna, April 13 – Last weekend, some 40 Daghestanis entered a Russian military base near St. Petersburg, beat up an officer who had insulted a Daghestani soldier, and then fled after other soldiers fired shots into the air, an event which has focused renewed attention on inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations in the Russian armed forces.
The incident, which took place in the Sapernoye settlement of Leningrad oblast’s Priozersky rayon, has received extensive attention in the press of the two capitals, with particular attention being given to the 18 Daghestanis who were arrested and whose cases are still under investigation (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/167648/).
According to these media accounts, “the conflict began when a contract soldier from Daghestan who was serving in this unit got into a fight with his landsman who was serving in the Sapernoye settlement” and when another Daghestani who had served in that unit then “assembled representatives of his diaspora” to carry out the attract.
None of the Daghestanis was armed, officials have said, but they were able to get into the grounds of the unit in question without difficulty, access that by itself has led some Russian bloggers to point out that doing the same thing in Soviet times would have been quite impossible and demanding better security (newsland.ru/News/Detail/id/488163/cat/42/).
Daghestanis in St. Petersburg said they were shocked by this incident – who would try to go into a military unit to seek revenge? Some of them asked media outlets – and said that they would look into the matter. But both Muslim leaders and human rights activists in the Northern Capital were more blunt.
Dzhamaliddin Makhmutov, the head of the St. Petersburg Islamic organization Al Fath said that what had happened reflects the sad reality that the military is not doing a good job for Muslim soldiers. He said that he had been called in not long before in order to explain to a Muslim soldier that it was not a violation of Islam to take the oath as a Russian soldier.
Ella Polyakova, the head of the Soldiers’ Mothers organization in St. Petersburg, agreed with Makhmutov. She noted that her group had received hot line calls from residents of Sapernoye and that problems involving ethnic and religious clashes very much existed in the Russian military.
And these problems, she continued, involve “not only Daghestanis but boys from Central Asia. Many of them are avoiding criminal convictions by agreeing to serve in the army. On the one hand, for them, service in the army is honorable. [But] on the other, they can sit in the barracks and create their own landsman organizations and then oppress others.”
To cope with this, Polyakova continued, the military should invite religious leaders “in order to explain to the youths how to act and how not to. Now, however, commanders prefer to act as if such a problem doesn’t exist [at least in their units. As a result,] incidents like the one in Sapernoye take place.”
As Kavkaz-uzel.ru points out, this is not the first such incident in Sapernoye or in the Russian Federation as a whole. In August 2005, that portal reports, there was a large clash between Russian officers and Daghestani soldiers. And there have been similar clashes in Kaliningrad (spring 2009), Altai (July 2009), and in the Kuriles (December 2006).
In the absence of more educational work and tighter discipline by Russian officers, such clashes are likely to multiply in the future as the percentage of non-Russian and non-Orthodox draftees in the Russian military increases as a result of the demographic growth of Muslim nationalities and decline of the Russian one.
Not surprisingly, these conflicts between members of different ethnic and religious groups only exacerbate concerns of many Russians that their country’s military is rapidly declining in quality. Indeed, one article this week bluntly asserted that “Russia is not ready for a war even with Georgia” (www.rosbalt.ru/2010/04/12/727924.html).
That judgment was provoked by another recent incident also near St. Petersburg. In Leningrad oblast, sergeants shot two officers from a tank. What is this,” the journalist asks, “an unhappy accident or criminal negligence?” And he reports that “experts confirm: such things will take place in the Russian army ever more often.”
That is because, they say, “the level of training of soldiers and officers is declining in a catastrophic fashion, and the military technology [that the two groups are forced to use] is getting older and breaking down,” problems that by themselves can lead to disasters both in training and even more in possible future military operations.