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Chechnya: Draft Avoidance Rises As Russia Ponders Professional Army

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Spring draft results show that young Russian men are, not surprisingly, eager to avoid serving in the military in Chechnya. As the large military presence in Chechnya -- at least 50,000 men, according to officials -- is expected to remain for some time, the question of a conscript versus a professional army is cropping up again. RFE/RL's Sophie Lambroschini reports.

Moscow, 14 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Two-thirds of conscripts say they would fight to defend Russia against an outside aggressor, the Russian Defense Ministry said this week. But when it comes to fighting in Chechnya, the numbers of the intrepid dwindle to less than half, a military study shows.

The results of this spring's draft campaign turned out to be quite alarming for the Russian army -- only 13 percent of draftees registered for duty. Most of the rest were excused for medical reasons or studies, or declared they wanted to perform alternative service. The General Staff says that, for the first time, the armed forces are suffering from a lack of conscripts.

Military analysts and soldiers' organizations say that fear of the war in Chechnya has certainly spurred the jump in draft evasion.

But according to Carnegie Endowment military analyst Aleksander Pikayev, the decline in conscripts began ten years ago, when draft regulations were eased. The military is infamous for its cruel hazing of new recruits. But Pikayev says that demographics also plays an important role.

"The problem of draftees is very acute because the traditional sources of conscripts in Soviet times, the republics with a high birthrate like in Central Asia and the Transcaucasus as well as parts of Ukraine, were lost to Russia. And Russia itself for some time has been characterized by a low birthrate. In the long term, the situation will become even worse, since the [Russian] birthrate has fallen even lower since the Soviet Union's breakup," he says.

The Soviet system that had conscripts serving two to three years has been criticized for years. In 1996, Boris Yeltsin promised to have the conscript system reformed by this year, a target date that seemed more about politics than reality. The idea of moving to a professional army crops up regularly. It even appears in Russia's new military doctrine -- but without a deadline.

The war in Chechnya has highlighted the desirability of professional soldiers. During the first Chechen war from 1994 to 1996, 18-year-old draftees were sent into combat with little training or preparation, and they died in large numbers. The public outcry played an important role in forcing Moscow to negotiate with the rebels. So when the second conflict began last fall, authorities were quick to announce that only conscripts with at least a year of experience could serve in Chechnya.

But just a few months later, that minimum was lowered to six months.

Both the Interior Ministry forces and the regular army need soldiers. The number of conscripts who report for duty is decreasing, and the army has been trimmed down by one-third over the past two years. Meanwhile, the war in Chechnya demands a presence of 40,000 to 100,000 men. Since troops must be rotated in and out of combat zones, the need for soldiers may even be growing.

Analyst Pikayev says it is amply clear that the troops are understaffed.

"Because of rotation, we had to send the navy infantry to fight in the Chechen mountains, which shows that in Russian you have extremely few combat-ready forces to fight in a war even as confined as Chechnya," he says.

The Defense Ministry is preparing a plan to boost the draft. The Russian weekly "Profil" reported last month that the army proposes reducing the number of organizations linked to the military-industrial complex, whose employees are allowed to defer their military service. Such a reform would increase the number of draftees by 40,000, the paper says.

Some reports say authorities have resorted to what amounts to press-ganging. The English language daily "Moscow Times" reported that a Moscow student dormitory was raided by draft authorities who rounded up about twenty students, put them on buses, and sent them to the military recruitment bureau. The young men were literally pulled out of their beds just hours after their graduation party the night before.

The lack of conscripts is already changing the makeup of the Russian force in Chechnya. Defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer says unofficial estimates show the proportion of conscripts in Chechnya among privates has fallen from 93 percent to around 60 percent. The rest are contract soldiers. This evolution is seen by some military men as a step towards a professional army. The commander of the Moscow Interior Ministry, General Arkady Baskayev, is in favor of this transition. He told Ekho Moskvy radio that contract soldiers and eventually a professional army would be less costly, both psychologically and financially. Not only are conscripts unprepared for battle, he says, they are also expensive. He says 10,000 conscripts could be replaced by just 3,500 professional soldiers.