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Russian defence reforms under fire

Sergei LavrovPressure on Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov is increasing after the Kremlin told the former tax chief to get his act together after a cursing scandal broke out, drawing attention to an already unpopular military reform campaign.

Serdyukov reportedly received a telephone call from the Kremlin last week, ordering him to "conduct a balanced, thought-out development to form a positive image of the military reform that is being conducted by the leadership of the country," Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported Monday, citing a Kremlin source.

The State Duma's Defence Committee, meanwhile, has formed a commission to investigate the allegations against Serdyukov, Nezavisimaya reported on Monday.

A source at the Defence Committee confirmed the reports, but Mikhail Babich, the Duma deputy charged with heading the investigation, was unavailable for comment as of print time.

The Kremlin source told Nezavisimaya that President Dmitry Medvedev was "very concerned" about Serdyukov's recent behaviour, when he cursed out the commander of a paratroopers academy in Ryazan and demanded the demolition of a church there. The Sep. 30 incident sparked outrage, with a video from Russia's paratrooper's association demanding Serdyukov's resignation ­ and there were even rumours that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had asked Serdyukov to resign.

The government has denied Putin's involvement, saying the reports ­ which first appeared in Argumenty Nedeli newspaper ­ were "made for hire".

The Paratroopers Union Of Russia ­ which released two video addresses last week demanding that Medvedev look into deliberate attempts to undermine Russia's paratrooper force ­ still says it has not received an official response.

"We already had a provocation on Friday, and it turned out to be a fabrication," a source at the Union who declined to give his name told The Moscow News in reference to rumors about Serdyukov's resignation. "We have no knowledge that Medvedev has responded. Until we have evidence of a real investigation, we are not commenting."

Unpopular minister

The Ryazan incident and the video address from the paratroopers union merely served as another trigger for a prolonged backlash against Serdyukov, seen as an outsider and disliked by top brass at the military. The former tax chief was appointed in February 2007 by then-President Putin in a bid to kick-start a much-needed reform process.

So far, that process has involved slashing the army down to 1 million people by 2011, from the current 1.2 million, sacking hundreds of generals and doing away with entire divisions. These plans, announced in the summer of 2008, have made the outsider Serdyukov ­ dubbed "the furniture man" by some in the military for his 10-year stint as a manager at a St. Petersburg furniture factory in the late 1980s ­ doubly unpopular.

This animosity is obvious, analysts say, since generals would fiercely resist anyone who so much as raises a finger against the status quo ­ particularly the military's budgets.

"Serdyukov comes from a financial background. He understands where the money coming from the defence budget actually goes," security analyst Yury Fyodorov, of Chatham House, told The Moscow News. "His first aim is to bring order to the financial flows. The generals don't like that."

As for the specific allegations against Serdyukov, Fyodorov called them "hypocritical".

"Everyone in the army talks like that," he said.

Another resignation?

Despite reports about Putin's comments, it is far too early to talk about any potential resignation for Serdyukov in the near future, Fyodorov said, especially with the presidential elections of 2012 looming nearer.

Others said that deciding what do with Serdyukov and the reforms given the intensifying backlash would pose a major headache for both Medvedev and Putin.

A growing number of retired army officers are becoming potentially "explosive," military expert Pavel Baev of the Oslo-based Peace Research Institute was quoted by The New Times as saying. "They are a serious political force capable of organisation. And this scenario would be very unwelcome for Putin and Medvedev."

And bigger question being decided here, experts say, is not just Serdyukov's fate, but whether the campaign against him could also sink the whole project to reform the military.

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