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Russia: Can Sergei Ivanov End Hazing?

By Claire Bigg and Victor Yasmann Ivanov (right) is a close ally of President Putin (file photo) (epa) Sergei Ivanov was appointed defense minister by President Vladimir Putin in 2001 and charged with the task of breathing new life into Russia's crumbling army. Abuse against young draftees, however, appears to continue unabated. The outrage sparked by the brutal hazing of Private Andrei Sychyov has put the spotlight on Ivanov, and raised questions about his commitment to reforming Russia's demoralized and violent armed forces.

MOSCOW, 14 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Ivanov is the first high-ranking state security officer to be appointed to the post of Russian defense minister. A former KGB officer, Ivanov has no military background -- in fact, he has never even served in the army. In addition, he spent his formative years inside a state structure that has a longtime tradition of antagonism toward the army.

The army he inherited in 2001 was plagued by poor morale, low pay, physical and psychological abuse, and corruption.

The task Ivanov was given -- to put the armed forces back on its feet -- was therefore a heavy one, especially considering his limited knowledge of military matters.

A Job Well Done?

As far as army hazing and bullying is concerned, recent events suggests that Ivanov has largely failed to meet expectations.

Russians reacted with shock and outrage at the story of Andrei Sychyov, a young draftee who was so brutally beaten by older servicemen that his legs and genitals had to be amputated.

Russian conscripts being processed in Belgorod in 2005

Russian news agencies are reporting that another young conscript died on 13 February in the city of Ufa after being beaten by fellow soldiers.

Ivanov fanned public anger at Sychyov's fate by first seeking to play down the incident, saying "nothing serious happened."

Over the next few days, however, Ivanov struck a very different tone, vowing to punish the offenders and accusing officers of covering up the incident.

"How is it that we in Moscow found out about this incident only two days ago?" Ivanov said. "These disgraceful facts actually happened on New Year's Eve. So our first question to our own officers and generals is: Why did you fail for 25 days to report to Moscow about what had happened?"

Fighting The 'Rule Of Grandfathers'

Not all, however, were convinced by Ivanov's ostensible commitment to combating the entrenched tradition of brutalizing conscripts, known in Russian as "dedovshchina," of the "rule of grandfathers."

Alexandr Golts, a leading military analyst, describes Ivanov's promises to fight hazing as "hot air."

Ivanov, he says, has on many occasions rejected the army's responsibility for hazing.

"He said many times that 'dedovshchina has long existed and will have to be fought for a long time. Dedovshchina has always existed, it has taken such a cruel character because our society has become so cruel, and society is to blame, not the army and the commanders,'" Golts said. "We have often heard this concept of things, starting from the generals and ending with Putin."

The army he inherited in 2001 was plagued by poor morale, low pay, physical and psychological abuse, and corruption. Not much has changed.

Like many other observers, Golts suspects Putin and Ivanov of deliberately turning a blind eye to hazing in order to maintain submission in the ranks -- and, later, in civilian life.

"I think that in the eyes of Putin and Ivanov, this army in its current form plays the role of an important social institution -- a place where citizens are taught obedience, are taught that the government is all-powerful and can use your life in an absolutely irresponsible manner. You can die and no one will be held responsible for it," Golts said.

Dozens Of Deaths Each Month

Ivanov, however, can be credited with one positive step towards raising awareness of violence in the army -- he ordered the defense minister to publish statistics of noncombat deaths in the Russian army on its website.

According to the Defense Ministry, 53 servicemen died in January as a result of crimes and accidents in the army, 14 of them allegedly by suicide.

In 2005, official statistics put the number of noncombat deaths at 1,064. The Soldiers' Mothers Committee, however, estimates that the real number is about three times higher.

President Putin in military uniform observing a military-satellite launch in February 2004 (epa)

Besides failing to stem army brutality, Golts says Ivanov has largely botched the projected reform of the armed forces.

Plans to abolish the compulsory draft and switch to a professional army have proved relatively unsuccessful so far. Ivanov announced last year that by 2008, only one-third of the army's 1.1 million soldiers will be serving on a contract basis.

Cash-strapped and unpopular, the Russian army is only able to recruit 9 percent of conscript-aged men eligible for service every year.

In order to fill the army's ranks, Ivanov in September 2005 announced that the majority of cadet faculties -- which enabled youths to avoid service -- would be closed down by 2008. The move sparked angry protests from students and their parents.

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The aftermath of a December 2002 Chechen resistance attack on the main government building in Grozny (epa)


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