Russia’s liberal, muckraking newspaper “Novaya gazeta” reported last week
that Lieutenant General Vladimir Shamanov, commander of the airborne forces, sent special-forces (spetsnaz) troops into Moscow to block a criminal investigation. The Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor-General’s Office (SKP) suspected Shamanov’s son-in-law, Aleksei Khramyshin, of trying to have a business rival murdered in 2006.
According to declassified audio intercepts published by “Novaya gazeta,” when Shamanov heard that a factory Khramyshin owned was to be searched, he ordered that commandoes from the 45th Separate Special Designation Regiment be sent to secure the building and detain the investigator. Tipped off, the SKP team hastily withdrew.
So far, so unexceptional.
For years senior commanders have used their political and military muscle to make money and defy the law. However, in the past the government has tended to play down or even suppress such stories. This time, the SKP was allowed to release the tapes, and Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov at once ordered an investigation.
Shamanov claims that his words were taken out of context – something hard to sustain on listening to the tapes – and that he is the victim of a smear campaign. Within the General Staff, though, former allies are now conspicuous in their desire to keep their distance from him. The consensus seems to be that he faces at best a quiet transfer to a less important position, at worst the ignominy of dismissal.
On the surface, then, this is encouraging news, suggesting that the government is at last beginning to crack down on the abuse of office within the high command. The reality is less optimistic, though.
Broke Unwritten Rules
First of all, Shamanov’s case is unusual. A bluff, forceful man, he was an effective field commander (he commanded Russian forces in Chechnya and in the August 2008 war against Georgia; human rights activists have accused him of complicity in crimes against humanity during the North Caucasus campaigns) but out of place within the often-byzantine politics of the high command. He commands much respect, but little affection amongst his peers. More to the point, he does not have a wide network of clients and allies.
Perhaps most important, he broke the unwritten rules. Not only was he indiscreet enough to be recorded, he acted in a way to embarrass or alarm the Kremlin. A fear of Bonapartism, of political intervention by the military, is deeply embedded within Russian political culture. By deploying special forces into Moscow on his personal authority, Shamanov highlighted the Kremlin’s lack of effective control over the military and in the process touched a very raw nerve.
And he committed another cardinal sin: He drew attention to the misdeeds of the officer corps at the very time that they are looking forward to a boom time for corruption. For example, the Defense Ministry’s efforts to sell off unneeded land and facilities, while currently sluggish because of the economic slowdown, are a great source of potential ill-gotten gains. The Main Military Procuracy (GVP) has suggested that property might be sold to officers or their partners at unrealistically low prices.
Even more lucrative, though, are the opportunities provided by the current military reform plans. The defense budget has been regularly increased in recent years and is to rise by 8 percent in 2010. A growing proportion of this will go toward a program of professionalization, slimming down the bloated military establishment while offering better salaries, facilities, and conditions to those who remain. Already, some officers receive bonuses trebling or quadrupling their basic pay. The result has been a scramble to secure these bonuses as well as to avoid dismissal as part of the downsizing.
Severely And Quickly
This has created massive opportunities for corruption. Senior officers and those within the personnel directorate can demand and expect substantial bribes for their recommendations. According to some Defense Ministry sources, the going rate can be the equivalent of a full year’s salary in return for guaranteeing continued employment on the higher pay scale.
Furthermore, the Defense Ministry is gearing up for a massive campaign of refurbishing and replacing rundown barracks and other facilities. This opens up opportunities for a wide range of money-making ventures from selling off second-hand furniture and equipment (which is then logged as having been destroyed) to manipulating bidding by contractors to secure government contracts.
It is therefore no wonder that so many senior officers want Shamanov dealt with, severely and quickly. At present, many are doing very well out of their current opportunities for graft and embezzlement, with little risk of prosecution. They also see even greater prospects on the horizon.
However, President Dmitry Medvedev has identified himself with the fight against corruption and Serdyukov is concerned about the cost of embezzlement to the defense budget. In that context, this cohort of corrupt senior officers fears that Shamanov’s case could force the Kremlin, at last, to crack down on criminality within the high command. But there is little sign of any real appetite for a thorough cleaning of the high command.
Whatever happens to Shamanov, the likelihood is that Russia’s dirty generals will continue to enjoy business as usual – so long as they keep a low profile.
Mark Galeotti is the academic chair of the Center for Global Affairs at New York University and author of "In Moscow’s Shadows," a blog on crime and corruption in Russia. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.