By Simon Saradzhyan and Jan de Weydenthal
Moscow, May 17 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Boris Yeltsin yesterday issued two decrees radically changing the character of Russia's armed forces and their current operations in battle zones.
The first decree laid down foundations for a professional army. It said that by the year 2000 "the armed forces shall be made up of voluntary, contracting citizens....with conscription abandoned." The change is to take place gradually, through step-by-step transition during coming years from compulsory recruitment to contractual service.
The second decree said that only volunteers may be sent to battle zones. It is to become effective immediately.
The move marks a dramatic change in government policy. Only last year, the same government extended the length of compulsory military service. It appears to be prompted by political considerations.
The conscription has become increasingly unpopular, with many people concerned that their children could be sent to fight in Chechnya. Yeltsin is running for re-election, and the conflict in Chechnya has become a major factor in the campaign.
But it also follows repeated complaints from the defense officials about the difficulty of ensuring full conscription. Last month the Defense Ministry said that only 20 percent of the eligible young people was entering the army, while the rest was using various excuses to dodge the draft.
There are currently about 270,000 professional soldiers - the "contractniki" - in the 1,700,000-strong Russian armed forces. But only units serving in the former Yugoslavia and Tajikistan are manned exclusively by the professional troops. Half of the troops fighting in Chechnya are professionals, while the rest are conscripts.
Thousands of young conscripts were sent to Chechnya since December 1994, when Yeltsin order the military to quell separatist move in the Caucasian republic by force. Many of them have been killed and countless others maimed. Two days ago, Defense Minister Pavel Grachev told reporters in Moscow that a decision was finally taken to replace the conscript there with professional troops.
Most of Russia's defense officials tend to favor conscription over professional army, largely because of cost. It is estimated that professional soldiers cost about 500 percent more to maintain than regular conscripts. And the Russian military is suffering from budget squeeze.
Speaking after the decree introducing professionalization was made public, Grachev's personal aide Yelena Agapova refrained from any comment and simply told RFE/RL yesterday that "the command of the armed forces believe that professional forces are what we all should strive for."
Retired General Vladimir Serebryannikov was more outspoken, and described the measure as "purely electoral, populist one." And he went on to say that while Russia should have professional army to defend itself he could not "see Russia switching to professional armed forces with some of the servicemen being undernourished beggars." It is reported that the Defense Ministry currently spends less than two dollars per day to feed one soldier.
A month before the presidential ballot, the two decrees are potentially vote winners for Yeltsin. But they have to be approved by the parliament to become law.