Communist Party leader GennadiiZyuganov recently made a statement to the effect that if Russia’s ongoingeconomic crisis is not soon overcome, the country’s next government willbe a military one. And Zyuganov’s comrade Viktor Ilyukhin, head of theleft-radical Movement for the Support of the Army, has more than once calledupon the military to ignore orders from the high command.
Such extremist statements comeat a time when the military is experiencing perhaps its most serious problemsever. A General Staff colonel, for example, receives less than $100 a month.Salaries have dropped nearly 70 percent in dollar terms due to the crisisand the ruble’s fall against the dollar, but even the resulting pitifulwages have not been paid for months
The armed forces are also undergoingmassive staff reductions in the officer corps. Discharged personnel arenow given no severance pay, though "golden handshakes" of 20 months’ wageswere promised at one time.
Judging by such facts, one mightconclude that Russia’s military stands close to a massive precipice; onemight even expect officers and soldiers to heed the words of Zyuganov,Ilyukhin, and others to take up arms.
Nevertheless, such a scenariois not occurring, aside from a few sporadic incidents. Last summer, a majorin the Nizhni Novgorod region whose division had been disbanded drove atank down the streets of his military base demanding payment of delayedwages. And several dozen officers’ wives in the Krasnoyarsk territory organizeda picket to prevent the transfer of a detail of missile forces personnelto a new location.
It is certainly not easy to obeythe state law saying that "soldiers and officers must sustain the hardshipsand deprivations of military service with dignified resignation." But thelaw is obeyed, and not because the military has any great respect for civilianauthorities.
When many expected President BorisYeltsin to dissolve the State Duma lower house of parliament last Septemberin the midst of the country’s most recent political crisis, he is reportedto have changed his mind after hearing a report from Security Council SecretaryAndrei Kokoshin. Kokoshin reputedly said that if the so-called "left-wing"opposition succeeded in organizing mass unrest in the wake of a Duma dissolution,the army would refuse to support the president as it did during his October1993 showdown with parliament.
But by all indications, Russia’s2.5 million people in uniform belonging to more than ten military and paramilitaryministries and departments would prefer to stay in their barracks howeverevents develop.
This is logical if one takes theirexperience living in newly independent Russia into account. Having inheritedthe lion’s share of the Soviet Union’s military machine, Russia is virtuallyunable to maintain it. For the past seven years, the armed forces and othermilitarized structures have been enveloped in continual financial crisis.And neither politicians nor generals have wanted to assume responsibilityfor massive personnel reductions. One result is that the military havebeen leading a miserable existence.
There is no shortage of high militarycommanders in Moscow’s political scene who are able to use the military’ssituation to their advantage. To name a few: former director of the FederalBorder Guard Service Andrei Nikolayev, Krasnoyarsk Governor Aleksandr Lebed,Duma deputy General Boris Gromov, and Kursk Governor Aleksandr Rutskoi(who, as Russia’s Vice President, helped lead parliament’s 1993 oppositionto Yeltsin).
Another dozen or so generals areinvolved in politics, from ultra-nationalist Albert Makashov to liberal-mindedEduard Vorobiev.
Lebed, Rutskoi, and Nikolayevcannot be denied having consistent political positions. It is preciselyfor this reason that none is able to lead the armed forces in an uprising.To persuade people in uniform to commit the most serious military crime,one has to make plain and clear-cut promises. It is therefore no surprisethat neither Nikolayev nor Lebed (unlike Ilyukhin) has appealed directlyto the military. They understand all too well that any attempt of thissort on their part would most likely arouse nothing but irritation amongthe ranks.
The sad experience of the infamouscoup attempts of August 1991 and October 1993, has taught the militaryto keep as far away from politics as possible. In those instances, politicianscarelessly and dishonestly used the army in their own interests and afterwardsattempted to shift all blame to the military. Now the armed forces willhardly respond to calls even if made by popular generals, much less helpthem become dictators.
A conspiracy inside the armedforces is even less probable. Perhaps the only tangible result of the USSR’spropaganda work in the Red Army is that its officers have become almostcompletely devoid of political drive. So long as regiments, divisions,and military groups are commanded by those who made their careers beforethe collapse of the Soviet Union, civilians have nothing to worry about.
No well-prepared military plotposes a threat today, despite the fact that sudden unrest may break outin random military units.
That is not to say that if soldiersblockade railroads, for example, to protest wage arrears or living conditions,the result would be significantly more disruptive that the protests ofrailroad workers, coal miners, or teachers.
But military riots would mostlikely be wholly contained locally and hardly involve conscripts. Mostconscripts see military service as simply a short episode in their lives.Why would they risk becoming outlaws fighting for a better life for theirofficers?
A protest in the armed forceswould also hardly find much support among the officer corps. Recent pollsconducted among military personnel paradoxically show that despite thefact that 90 percent of officers said they were dissatisfied with theirliving standards, more than 50 percent were determined to remain in service.However hard their life, those in the military are perhaps even more apprehensiveof making it as civilians in Russia’s present-day conditions. One mustconclude that officers will remain tolerant of their situations.
This conclusion, however, doesnot mean that the military cannot play a role in politics. Officers arewell able and in many cases even more inclined to help conservative andleftist extremist politicians come to power in Russia. Not by force ofarms but - however odd it may sound - through democratic means. Militarypersonnel and their family members constitute one of the largest and mostdisciplined, not to mention controllable, segments of the electorate.
Not by chance did those interestedin electoral manipulation during recent elections in St. Petersburg concentrateprecisely on influencing military personnel and pensioners. The high commandwill hardly be able to keep the barracks off limits to politics, even thoughso far, the armed forces have not yet taken a significant part in majorpolitical games.