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Russia: Military Men Increasingly Seeking Political Office

Last Friday, the campaign began to become the next governor of Kursk in elections next month. It came as no surprise that two generals are competing for the post. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports that the number of military men seeking high office in Russia is growing, but it's not clear whether this represents a threat to democracy.

Moscow, 25 September (RFE/RL) -- The phenomenon of power ministry officials and charismatic generals entering politics is not new in Russia.

In 1996, former paratrooper Aleksandr Lebed made a strong showing in the presidential election, placing a third. Lebed is now the governor of Krasnoyarsk. Aleksandr Rutskoi, an Afghanistan war veteran, was Russia's first vice-president under Boris Yeltsin. Other regional bosses with military ranks include Ingush president Ruslan Aushev. An average of 12 regular army or interior ministry men were present in the last three Duma legislatures.

But in the aftermath of a recent Kremlin-sponsored reform of the region this year, more and more high-ranking military and intelligence officers appear to be entering politics.

One of these is General Vladimir Shamanov, the head of the Russian 58th army. Shamanov is most closely linked to the war in Chechnya, where he was in charge of operations last year and earned the reputation as a brutal commander among Chechen civilians. Shamanov is running for Ulyanovsk governor in elections that are set for December 24.

Similarly, in Kaliningrad, the commander of the Baltic Fleet Admiral Vladimir Yegorov is running for governor, opposing incumbent Leonid Gorbenko, whose administration has been dogged by corruption allegations. Yegorov recently took a temporary leave from the service in order to run.

And last week in Kursk, two men with military or intelligence backgrounds began gubernatorial campaigns there. Former intelligence officer Viktor Surzhikov, who recently headed the Volgograd branch of the Federal Intelligence Service (FSB), will be facing former soldier Rutskoi.

The English language Moscow Times reports that FSB officers are also planning to run in Voronezh and Chelyabinsk.

Francoise Deauce, a French political scientist who studies the link between Russian military and politics, says men like Shamanov and Surzhikov are entering politics for different reasons from their predecessors.

She says past military-political careers were often motivated by what she calls "structural factors," including the drastic cut in troops since 1991 which has left tens of thousands of officers without a job. These military men often sought higher office, she says, to oppose the government and the state authorities.

"Under [Boris] Yeltsin, the generals were usually elected against the opinion of the president and the central powers. That was the case with Lebed -- [and] with Rutskoi of course. Letting generals be elected as governors is sometimes also a way of limiting their political influence on the federal level.

This time around, Deauce says, the military and FSB candidates appear to have the backing of the Kremlin.

Surzhikov says he has Putin's support. Yegorov has said the "commander in chief" (eds: Putin) supports his subordinates, but he did not make clear whether this included outright political backing.

Putin's apparent preference to promote military men can be seen in his choice of seven special representatives to lead the country's seven new super-districts (which coincide with Russia's traditional military districts). Five of the seven men come from the army, the interior ministry or the FSB.

These special envoys, in turn, have tended to favor fellow law-enforcement veterans for appointments as federal inspectors, where they will be coordinating work for the special envoy.

Surzhikov, for example, was recently appointed federal inspector by the Central district presidential envoy Georgy Poltavchenko, a former KGB officer.

Deauce says the threat of a military-type order in the regions lies less in the fact that generals are seeking elected office and more in the fact that increasingly military and intelligence men are being appointed to all types of higher offices:

"The thing that causes the most concern is that the government is appointing military men in the regional administration, specifically as the president's representatives. Concerning the elected military, the situation is slightly different because they can have more autonomy than the appointees and eventually make their own choices in opposition to the central authority. But it is the fact that military people are entering both administrative office and elected office on a regional level that increases the atmosphere and a very authoritarian management-style of political life."

Deauce says she doesn't feel that the increase in military men in elected office is necessarily a threat to democracy. She points out that past experience shows these men often have their own political agenda, which is independent from the authorities.