The problem of military service for North Caucasian recruits in the Russian army has been discussed for some time already. General-colonel Vasilii Smirnov, the Russian General Staff Deputy Chief, said that the military draft of young men from the North Caucasus will increase. One-hundred-fifty Chechens had been drafted into the 249th special motorized battalion in July 2012. That regiment is stationed permanently in Chechnya. Back then, that news was regarded as a sensation in spite of the fact that there were about 80,000 people of draft age in Chechnya. Meanwhile, the problem of drafting of Chechens to other Russian regions is not yet solved.
The discussion today, however, focuses on inter-ethnic conflicts inside army barracks. In 2000, about 20 Chechens were drafted to a regiment near Moscow. However, it provoked conflicts and was regarded by the authorities as a negative experience. In 2002, Chechen draftees were sent to regiments in Voronezh and Saratov oblasts/regions, and the consequences were again negative.
After that, attempts to draft people outside of Chechnya caused heated discussions and even rejections inside the republic. High-ranking bureaucrats and well-known persons in Chechnya publicly opposed taking local draftees outside of Chechnya, and one might suppose that their position was approved by local authorities. Meanwhile, ethnic Chechens served by contract in special battalions such as ‘North,’ ‘South,’ ‘East,’ and ‘West.’ The ‘East’ battalion participated in the 2008 August war with Georgia.
There have been quite a few incidents. One in 2009 involving Dagestan draftees in the Baltic fleet. A year after that, a mob fight with Caucasians took place at a regiment near Moscow. A similar incident took place in the Perm krai/region where 120 soldiers from the North Caucasian republics refused to follow orders, with the conflict only being resolved with help of local Muslim leaders.
Some public statements and comments have contributed to the problem. On 18 June 2012, RIA-Novosti announced, with reference to an anonymous source at the Ministry of Defense, that young men from the North Caucasus would not be drafted into the army anymore, including even those ones who are residents of other Russian regions. Such a decision supposedly would be motivated by measures that needed to be taken against ethnic “compatriotism,” which would fit with army regulations.
Such “authoritative” statements were not only anonymous. On 15 April 2011, Nikolai Zakharov, the military commissar of the Chelyabinsk oblast/region, announced during the press conference devoted to a Spring draft that young men from the North Caucasus would not be drafted into the Russian army. The high ranking military bureaucrat even referred to official instructions issued by the Russian General Staff and explained that the decision would help decrease inter-ethnic tensions in the army. Journalists and experts widely discussed the existence of those “secret instructions.” Later, however, the Ministry of Defense officially denounced the existence of such documents.
Nevertheless, the Russian military occasionally makes statements that may be interpreted as some kind of attempt to figure out if public opinion is ready for such measures. Those statements can be interpreted as signs that the military have not worked out a comprehensible attitude toward draftees from problematic republics. There is no doubt that army leaders discuss the possibility of some restrictions of draftees from the North Caucasus. In addition, a discussion about the establishment of mono-ethnic regiments appears from time to time.
In March 2011, Sergey Fridinskii, head of the Office of the Military Prosecutor, announced that “ethnic gangs dictate their own rules” in barracks and pointed to the Caucasians. Colonel Sergey Tsipushtanov, Military Prosecutor of Baltic fleet, indicated that after they stopped drafting the North Caucasians, incidents within the fleet dropped by almost third.
Indeed, inter-ethnic-incidents in the Russian army are not uncommon. There are factual incidents that do support claims by military authorities. However, the army does not exist separately from society and it represents a certain reflection of the state itself. The Russian policy in the North Caucasus is oriented on the maintenance of the loyalty of local elites rather than on its integration into federal social and political processes. Why should we expect that the draftees would behave differently? They just repeat, at their own level, the same style of relations that they observe on the federal level. The way that Russian federal bureaucrats let situations in Caucasian republics develop is the same way officers behave in the barracks. As a consequence, irregular relations and behavior fills the vacuum of power in the army where the rule of the strongest replaces the law. The parallel in challenges are the same.
The army should integrate North Caucasian draftees, establish order in the barracks – that is, the same power de-privatization that is needed on the state level. Otherwise, it would just promote some kind “army separatism.” The army is a very important social institution, by itself. It can be a very useful instrument to integrate different social segments in a polytechnic society. The army can provide a social lifting for such over-populated region as the North Caucasus. Ignoring its importance would be equal to neglecting a useful tool (and might even lead to an increase of extremism).
There are extensive experiences that can be useful. For example, after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., black and white solders in the U.S. army in Vietnam would leave their posts to participate in interracial conflicts in their regiments. Some Washington, DC, neighborhoods after the 1968 race riots resembled parts of downtown Grozny in 1995. However, the state worked extensively to integrate different segments of America into one political nation and to overcome segregation. And such a policy has had its positive result. Nowadays, while “racial questions” remain difficult social issues, they are not political problems anymore.
Only the development of the state system in general – including law, order, and abolishing cults of ethnicity may also serve to alleviate inter-ethnic tensions in the Russian army. Then, the military draft will cease to contribute to the “feeling of future civil war” and will become a true constitutional duty for all citizens of the country.