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Russia: Tatarstan Conscripts Won't Fight In Dagestan

The Russian government has apparently acquiesced to a decision by the Russian republic of Tatarstan not to send Tatarstan conscripts to the conflict zone in Dagestan. RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent, Sophie Lambroschini, says it's not clear whether a ban on the use of inexperienced conscripts will be extended to soldiers from other regions and republics.

Moscow, 21 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Tatarstan says it will no longer send its conscripts to fight for Russia in the southern region of Dagestan. And the Russian Defense Ministry has agreed to the province's decision.

Yesterday, the ministry said it had "responded willingly" to a Tatarstan State Council resolution last week to suspend conscription after seven Tatarstan conscripts were killed in Dagestan.

Interfax quotes a ministry official (Gen. Valery Astanin) as saying no Tatarstan conscripts with less than six months' experience would be sent to what he called "hot spots." That was a clear reference to the north Caucasus region, where Russian forces are now fighting an Islamist insurrection of Chechen-led rebels.

The Tatarstan decision followed widespread Russian news reports that the military was illegally using inexperienced soldiers to fight the rebels. Two of the seven Tatarstan conscripts killed in the fighting had been in the army less than two months.

According to Russian law, conscripts can be used in armed conflicts only on a voluntary basis. The Defense Ministry reportedly also has internal guidelines that prohibit sending into combat soldiers with less than six months of service.

Analysts say the ministry reacted quickly to Tatarstan's protest to prevent other republics and regions from passing similar resolutions.

Nikolai Petrov, a regional analyst with the Carnegie Fund, says the ministry was probably worried that Tatarstan would be the first of many regions to prohibit the use of its soldiers. He says there was a similar tug-of-war between federal and regional authorities in the 1994-96 Chechen war, and other regions are pressing similar views in private.

Russian media are also speculating the ministry's decision may be partially motivated by the fact that Tatars are traditionally Muslim, like the Chechens the Russian forces are fighting. Therefore, the media say, the Tatars may not be entirely reliable as soldiers.

Officially, the Russian forces cannot practice any discrimination on a religious basis, and they deny doing so.

A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman told RFE/RL today that he was not allowed to comment on the reasons behind the decision. He said, though, that the decision would not be automatically extended to conscripts from other regions.

He said the decision on Tatarstan was "too political" to have been made at the ministerial level and was probably made on a wider governmental level.

The Soldiers' Mothers Committee, a well-known organization specializing in the defense of soldiers' rights, has criticized this individual approach - whether based on religious or political factors. Committee spokeswoman Valentina Melnikova says the regions will have to apply a lot more pressure to stop the military from using inexperienced soldiers to fight wars.

Melnikova told RFE/RL that the basic problem is that the Russian army doesn't train its conscripts properly. She says even after six months, "Most of them haven't learned to shoot a gun."