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Tough job for Russia’s new military police

by Mark Galeotti at 31/10/2011 21:13

A BTR-80 armored personnel carrier is a 13-ton vehicle that can do all kinds of things, from laying down covering fire from its heavy machine-gun to racing across rough terrain at 80 kilometers per hour. It can also fetch an enterprising officer 135,000 rubles ($4,500) as scrap, according to investigators from the Military Prosecutor’s Office. They have been looking into the case of an officer from the Far Eastern Military District who sold the vehicle off to a scrap metal dealer before leaving the service – and taking up a job as a local policeman.

The official crime rate in the military fell by 10.6 percent in the first half of this year. Even the authorities admit in part this was simply because crimes were not being recorded. More to the point, in the past year the size of the military has fallen even faster, so crimes committed per capita continued to rise. Many of these are cases of theft and violence within the ranks. The brutal system of hazing known as dedovshchina (“grandfatherism”) continues, with more experienced recruits bullying and exploiting newcomers. There is also growing inter-ethnic violence, reflecting tensions within society as a whole.

Just as serious in a different way is the extent to which officers and even defense contractors exploit the system. Contracts are padded, substandard food and goods provided and then charged at full rate, and commanders extort money from their own men. In May, for example, a whistleblower at the Air Force’s elite Lipetsk training school complained that trainees were being forced to hand over monthly payments.

To combat graft, the first military police units are to be in place by the end of the year

© RIA Novosti. / Pavel Lisitsyn

To combat graft, the first military police units are to be in place by the end of the year

This sparked a series of similar cases; it emerged that the commander of the Syzran helicopter training school “taxed” cadets 5 percent of their monthly salaries.

Even Chief Military Prosecutor Sergei Fridinsky, who has seen his share of crimes and scams, has been horrified by the level of embezzlement, admitting that “the scope of military corruption is mindboggling; it seems people have lost shame and a sense of proportion.”

According to Fridinsky, 20 percent of the money allocated to the State Defense Order disappears through theft and kickbacks, although others claim the real figure is 30 percent, 40 percent or even half. My own estimate is actually lower, up to 14 percent, but given that the total order is worth 750 billion rubles ($25 billion) that’s still a massive 105 billion rubles ($3.5 billion) – equivalent to all the money the government spends on employment programs and supporting the jobless in a year.

No wonder that Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov has decided that Russia finally needs a specialized military police force to give the Military Prosecutor’s Office extra teeth. It was announced in 2010, but the first military police units are to be in place by the end of this year. Lieutenant General Sergei Surovikin has been chosen to head this force, an ex-Spetsnaz fighting general who saw action in Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Chechnya. He’s not a man to cross – when he commanded the 34th Infantry Division he once chewed up one of his subordinates so fiercely that the man promptly shot himself.

Eventually, there will be 20,000 military police, many drawn from reservists, in all major units around the country. This could be great news for all the anxious parents waving goodbye as their sons head off for their year’s national service, to say nothing of the taxpayers contributing to generals’ retirement funds and admirals’ dachas.

It’s not a quick fix, though, and will need to be resourced and managed properly. Just as the regular police are still too often extortionists in uniform, so too the MPs could become just another layer of crooks. Ultimately, what’s needed is a cultural change to create a democratic, cohesive and more transparent military. That will take more than just military cops.

Mark Galeotti is Clinical Professor of Global Affairs at New York University’s SCPS Center for Global Affairs. His blog, “In Moscow’s Shadows,” can be read at: http://inmoscowsshadows. wordpress.com

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