WORLD

Warm ties, cold soldiers

Bleak conditions await the retreating army

MALCOLM GRAY August 12 1991
WORLD

Warm ties, cold soldiers

Bleak conditions await the retreating army

MALCOLM GRAY August 12 1991

Warm ties, cold soldiers

WORLD

THE SOVIET UNION

Bleak conditions await the retreating army

Shortly before President George Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed their historic nuclear-arms-reduction treaty in Moscow last week, Marina Pavlov also was considering the implications of the end of the Cold War. It hit very close to home. Six months ago, she and her family

occupied a comfortable two-room apartment in the former East German town of Magdeburg. But German reunification, and the resulting phased withdrawal of Soviet troops, dramatically affected her life. The army relocated 33year-old Pavlov, her career-soldier husband, who asked that his name not be used, and their six-year-old daughter, Lena, to an anti-aircraft base near Naro Fominsk, about 100 km southwest of the Soviet capital. There, on the neatly kept grounds of Military Unit 5, the family again has a two-room apartment. But it is makeshift accommodation in a five-storey building that once served as a school. As she sat in the narrow living room, where stains from a leaky roof marked the walls, Pavlov expressed

concern that the room’s tiny heating unit would be inadequate in winter. Said Pavlov: “My husband is now a major and he has served in the army for 25 years. He deserves better living conditions than this.”

Most of the unit’s officers occupy equally cramped and inadequate housing—a result of

the Soviet army’s hasty and ill-planned withdrawal from East Germany and other former Warsaw Pact countries during the past two years. More than 30,000 officers and their families have already returned to the Soviet Union from Czechoslovakia and Hungary. And as Soviet forces still stationed in Germany reduce their strength during the next two years, another 77,000 families are scheduled to return to a homeland that is hard-pressed to accommodate them. Despite a German government pledge of $5.3 billion to subsidize a Soviet construction program for returning soldiers and their families, only 4,000 new residential units have been built so far, about 11 per cent of the number planned by 1994.

Communist conservatives have expressed bitter opposition to the speed of that withdrawal, stoking recurrent fears that the so-called loss of Eastern Europe might prompt hard-liners in the party and the military’s upper echelons to overthrow Gorbachev. But many Soviet analysts and mid-level officers discount that possibility. They argue that any would-be coup leaders would be reluctant to risk having to take subsequent responsibility for the country’s chaotic economy.

At a time when the threat of external attack has diminished, the Soviet armed forces—the world’s largest military machine, with four million members—are striving to adapt to post-Cold War conditions and the profound changes that are now sweeping once-static Soviet society. As the economically troubled

Kremlin begins a reduction that will shrink the military to about three million personnel during the next 10 years, many officers frankly acknowledge their concern that they might soon be mustered out to a tightening job market with only military skills to offer. Still, many mid-level officers maintain that the Soviet Union should quickly move to smaller, bettertrained-and-equipped volunteer forces. Noted a recent edition of the Moscow-based liberal daily newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta (the Independent Gazette): “It seems that the huge, lumbering Soviet army compares rather unfavorably with the mobile and efficient professional armies of the West.”

But even as the Soviet military thins its

ranks, many senior generals are expressing alarm over the manpower shortages caused by draft dodgers and deserters who are unwilling to serve the two-year terms that are, in theory at least, mandatory for all 18-year-old Soviet men. According to figures that Defence Minister Dimitry Yazov released at a Moscow conference of military officers late last year, about 35,000 men evaded the draft in 1990, and another 4,000 recruits deserted after their induction. As a result, Yazov complained that draft evasion, coupled with exemptions for students in universities and technical institutes, had left the Soviet armed forces with an annual shortfall of about 400,000 personnel in recent years.

The Kremlin cites security reasons for not disclosing the total number of youths drafted each year. But military spokesmen readily acknowledge that the 1991 spring draft fell short by almost 10 per cent, with particularly low turnouts in the socalled refusenik republics where independence drives have strong support. Indeed, less than 10 per cent of potential Georgian conscripts answered the most recent call-up. Many draft-age men in Georgia, Armenia, Moldova, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania choose to work instead as hospital orderlies or at other forms of community service that their republican governments consider substitutes for military service.

In Russia itself, the largest and most populous of the 15 Soviet republics and, as a result, the prime source of military manpower, the army’s entanglement in nationalist and ethnic disputes has fostered resistance to the draft. Indeed, some prominent Soviet generals acknowledge that the army’s presence in such danger zones as the border area between the feuding republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan has tarnished the reputation of the services in the eyes of many Soviet citizens. Said Gen. Albert Makashov, a staunch Communist who was a candidate for the Russian presidency in June: “The use of the army for the settlement of internal conflicts? I am emphatically against the Soviet army fulfilling the functions of oppression.” But in a recent interview with the conservative publication Sovetsky Patriot, Makashov added: “How can I, a general, and all of us in the military, watch what is going on there in cold blood?”

Many Soviet army veterans say that assignment to a so-called hot spot is only one of the hazards of active duty. Servicemen, they maintain, are often at risk because of poor safety standards, inadequate medical care and dedovshchina, the often-brutal hazings that senior conscripts inflict on young recruits. Certainly, hazing has endured within Russian

barracks since Czarist times as a rigid and elaborate hierarchy among enlisted men that places new recruits at the beck and call of more senior conscripts. Young soldiers are required to shine boots, run errands and perform other menial tasks for their superiors. But they are also the victims of extortion, and sometimes brutal beatings.

Those hazing rituals have also contributed to the Soviet forces’ high fatality statistics in peacetime: Yazov has acknowledged that more than 2,000 soldiers died last year alone, 25 per cent of them suicides. And the numbers may be even higher: according to some critics, among them mothers of soldiers who have died in service, the military sometimes deliberately hides murders by claiming that accident or

illness had caused the deaths. Members of Shchit (shield), a nationwide organization that is seeking extensive military reform, maintain that the Soviet military’s peacetime casualty list is closer to 4,000 fatalities each year. And Shchit spokesmen maintain that hazing is increasingly directed against non-Slavic conscripts or recruits from secession-inclined republics.

At Military Unit 5, soldiers openly discussed such sensitive subjects as the likelihood of an army revolt against Gorbachev. Said one private, who acknowledged that he had returned reluctantly to the Soviet Union from duty in Budapest: “The army submits to the Soviet president and it is not up to the generals to decide if he should go.” On the more awkward question of what he would do if top army commanders ordered him to help carry out a coup, the 18-year-old soldier replied: “The army is not a monolith. It is no different from the people, and the question of a president going or staying is now to be decided by the people.”

To be sure, with approximately one million

party members in its ranks, the Soviet military is the Communist party’s largest single bastion of support. But although 75 per cent of Soviet officers remain Communist, thousands of others have turned in their membership cards in recent years. Many of those who left argue that the forces’ loyalty should be to the state and not to any single political institution. Indeed, Russia-wide presidential elections in June underlined the widening split between the Soviet Union’s 3,000 admirals and generals, almost all of them unwavering party members, and the officers and men whom they command. Said Lt.-Col. Viktor Kolpanov, the 34-year-old political officer for Military Unit 5: “The generals wanted Russians to support former Soviet premier Nikolai Ryzhkov, but 60 per cent of

the soldiers voted for Boris Yeltsin, the eventual winner.”

In some ways, Kolpanov, a 17-year veteran, embodies some of the profound changes that are now shaking the Soviet military. Kolpanov, his wife, Luba, and their nine-year-old daughter, Olga, are adjusting to a spartan Soviet flat after leaving a well-appointed apartment in Budapest. As a political officer, Kolpanov is following in the boot steps of Josef Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev—commissars who strove to enforce the links between the party and the military. But Kolpanov said that he now feels comfortable engaging soldiers in discussions that range far beyond Marxist-Leninist dogma to such contemporary topics as the pending changeover to a market economy. In fact, he says that he is ready to embark on a new career when he completes the minimum 20-year service for a military pension in 1994. Armed with an acquired fluency in Hungarian, Kolpanov said that he hopes to return to Budapest—as a businessman.

MALCOLM GRAY in Naro Fominsk