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War Crimes: Perceptions of Conditions in the Army Remain Negative Despite Reform

Russian Conscripts With Gear Boarding Train On Friday Russia's Chief Military Prosecutor Sergei Fridinsky announced that crime in the army had risen sharply in 2010, by a total of 16 percent. Severe cases of hazing in the Russian armed forces are an infamous problem, but the military reforms designed to eliminate such practices seem to be having the opposite effect by creating chaos in the military.

Kirill, a fifth year student at an institute in Moscow, is set to enter the army after graduating this year. Like many other students his age, he said that his first opinions of the army took shape a long time ago amid the notorious stories of "murders, fights, and showdowns" in the army that came to light in the Chechen wars. Yet even as programs of military reform have been pushed through in recent years, he says popular conceptions of the army have not changed much. "In terms of how we look at the army, I don't think that the reforms have served much use. In principle things might be better, but our associations have remained the same."

Fridinsky said on Friday that the situation in the military is indeed getting worse in terms of violence and hazing. "For the last year and a half the number of violent crimes has been increasing. In the previous year alone, their number among the troops rose by more than 16 percent. Thousands of servicemen have suffered from violence, tens have received especially severe injures, and there have been deaths," he said in a statement posted after his presentation on Friday on the chief military prosecutor's Web site.

Recent reforms in the Russian military, in particular a shortening of the conscription period from two years to one, starting 2008, were seen as a way to decrease the burden of military service on young Russian males, and combat the problem of hazing among new recruits.

Yet as Fridinsky explained on Friday, violent crime in the army may have actually increased due to the new conscription period, which greatly increased the number of soldiers that the army had to draft each year in order to replace soldiers who now leave after a year of service.

This, said Pavel Baev of the Peace Research Institute of Oslo, is a serious blow to those who saw the reduction of service periods as the key to eliminating, or severely reducing, violent crime in the military. "I think this is very unpleasant news for military reformers," said Baev. "The assumption was that a reduction of the draft period would strongly contribute to the elimination of hazing because the source of hazing was primarily those conscripts who were in the ranks in their last half-year. They are the older soldiers, and they are the problem. And I think it is clear that the problem has not been resolved."

While the most recent data from the prosecutor's office has raised serious doubts about whether reforms of the military are having a positive effect, others argued that there have been significant changes in the military for the better over the past few years. The head of the Soldiers Committees to Protect Mothers, Valentina Melnikova, made the case that the rising number of registered violations in the military is evidence of growing openness in the system.

"Almost every soldier in the army and other services experiences violent crime," she said. "And it has always been like this. But earlier only tens of cases reached the prosecutor and the courts, then it became hundreds and then thousands. This is a rise in the uncovering of crime in the army. The system is becoming more open, and more and more of these cases, whether violent or corruption based, are reaching the courts."

The decision to shorten the period of conscription has also come under serious attack for hampering the military readiness of units. The short period of service, one year, has led to complaints that they are not being adequately trained for certain sectors of the army, including service in specialized divisions such as the paratroopers, or for other positions requiring technical expertise. These positions should have been filled by professional soldiers according to the reform outline, said Baev, but so far military leaders have been unable to fulfill that goal and have had to make do with undertrained conscripts.

"The greatest failure of the reform has been the inability to build a corps of professional soldiers. Not those serving for just two years, but those who really consider the army as a career. And these professional soldiers are in a situation where the draft period has been reduced and the officer corps is also demoralized with the severe cuts [in personnel]. This should have been the backbone of the new army, and that backbone is just not there. In essence the whole situation in the barracks has deteriorated because there is nobody there to keep order."

The Russian leadership has been struggling with the problem of how the country can develop a more professional military, one aspect of which, many say, is to eliminate the military draft. Obligatory service is a central point of frustration for young Russian males, who dodge the draft in increasing numbers. As Kirill explained, the biggest issue for him, even as some of his friends say the army is becoming less dangerous, is the need to give up a year of his life and lose the chance to find better opportunities for employment.

The draft, argues Melnikova, is a historical problem that stretches back hundreds of years in Russia, and eliminating it could be revolutionary for soldiers in the modern Russian military, as well as for ending severe cases of hazing. "One step remains: to cross over to a completely professional army and eliminate the draft," she said. It's the last step. A contract soldier in the army is one without rights. It's a Soviet tradition, and of the Russian Empire before that. He can't make calls, send parcels; if officers humiliate them and they resist, then a criminal case can be raised against them for insubordination. The legislation is set up in such a way that the soldier is always guilty, and as long as they are drafted, that is how it will be."

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