Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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#11 - JRL 7006
Russian defense minister slams army commanders, NGO for soldier desertions

MOSCOW, Jan 6 (AFP) - Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov on Sunday hit out at commanders' incompetence and indifference for frequent soldier desertions plaguing Russia's ailing army, the Interfax news agency reported.

"Mass desertions are usually caused by the commanders' inability to work with their subordinates, their lack of interest in what happens among soldiers, and wilful abandonment of direct duties they are paid to fulfill," Ivanov said.

Russian military prosecutors on Sunday opened a criminal case for desertion after 24 soldiers abandoned their posts in the Saint Petersburg region, saying they had been brutalized by officers.

Desertions are frequent in the 1.1 million-strong Russian armed forces, where conditions are harsh and recruits serving two years -- three in the navy -- are often subjected to bullying and violence.

Last month, 16 conscripts fled their posts in Moscow to escape the abuse of their drunken commanding officer.

However, the minister also targeted the non-governmental Soldiers' Mothers committees for offering aid to runaways who often travel hundreds of kilometers (miles) to reach their auspices.

"It is normal when soldiers appeal to military prosecutors after their complaints to their commanders proved fruitless. But we begin to wonder why soldiers would flee to certain organisations, whose financial sources are quite questionable," Ivanov added.

Of the 24 runaways who left their posts Saturday, some managed to make it into the Soldiers' Mothers committee office in Saint Petersburg, to make their complaints known.

Russia has been attempting to upgrade and modernize its chronically underfunded armed forces, and Ivanov has proposed setting up a small but fully professional force as the backbone of the country's defenses by 2007 while leaving the highly unpopular conscription almost completely intact.

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