Russia Fights Corruption, Abuse in Armed Forces

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Russia's chief military prosecutor says crime in the armed forces is growing, and government efforts to stop the abuse appear to have failed. In a rare example of public candor from the secretive Russian military, Gen. Alexander Savenkov details corruption at high levels, abuse of subordinates and severe hazing of conscripts.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

There was a very sobering assessment this week of the Russian armed forces. The chief military prosecutor, General Alexander Savenkov, gave reporters a devastating picture of crime, corruption, brutality and abuse. NPR's Anne Garrels joins us from Moscow.

And, Anne, what is the picture that this general is painting?

ANNE GARRELS reporting:

A grim one, as you note. The military prosecutor said crime rates, already high, continue to grow, along with corruption, at all levels, including senior levels. He said this inspires anguish, not optimism. And he noted the dwindling of responsibility overall in the military for discipline, law and order are contributing to an overall decline of combat potential, and this effects security of the state.

BLOCK: And what specific examples did he have to illustrate the sort of crime and abuse that he's talking about here?

GARRELS: First of all, he noted that four years have passed since the government ordered the military to clarify rules of conduct and how orders are issued, and he said there's been no progress. As for discipline, he cited the rise in the number of suicides in the military, which are now twice those in the US military. He said brutal hazing of conscripts, which has long been a problem, continues to grow. He spoke of general mistrust of commanders by soldiers and their families. He said there's nowhere for soldiers to seek counseling or redress.

He lashed out at draft boards for filling the ranks with inappropriate men, some with criminal records, only to fulfill their quotas. And as an example, he named an admiral who's been convicted of criminal negligence, who has since been promoted to be an aide to the defense minister, asking, `What kind of an example is this for the rest of the military?'

Now theft is a huge problem, always has been, and as an example of continued theft, he said fuel stolen last year was enough for an air force regiment to meet all flying hours requirements for a year.

BLOCK: Anne, this sort of transparency would be, to put it mildly, not a common thing, I would imagine, in Russia.

GARRELS: Well, these issues have been discussed before, and I think that's what's so striking--is that everybody knows about them. But what he was saying is that nothing has been done.

BLOCK: How do you explain the timing? Why would this general have come out now so publicly and so forcefully?

GARRELS: Well, it could be self-serving to show he's doing his job, even if others aren't. But analysts suggest this may be an indirect attack on the defense minister. Now Sergei Ivanov is a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, but he's not popular, and he's considered vulnerable. He repeatedly complains he needs more money. But Savenkov made it clear fixing what he's talking about doesn't take money, but determination and leadership.

BLOCK: Anne, let's turn now to another big story that's ongoing in Russia, and that's the trial of the former oil magnate Mikahil Khodorkovsky. What's happening in that trial?

GARRELS: It goes on. The judges have been reading the summation now for eight days, and it's not clear when they will pronounce the final verdict. That Khodorkovsky will be found guilty is clear; the question is if the judges will follow the prosecutors' demands that he serve 10 years. So far fueling concerns about the fairness of the trial and the independence of the courts, the judges' summation has echoed almost word for word the prosecution's charges.

Now analysts here generally agree the Kremlin's orchestrated the reading, first postponing it until last week to avoid having the trial overshadow the visit of 50 heads of state on May 9th. Now analysts speculate the judges are dragging the whole process out in order to reduce public interest and basically bore people, and it seems to be working. The 500 or so police outside the courthouse today far outnumbered the few demonstrators who turned up.

BLOCK: And remind us, Anne, of the political forces that are the backdrop to that trial.

GARRELS: Well, Khodorkovsky is an oil tycoon, became, in the corrupt, messy early years of the '90s--made a fortune collecting companies that were privatized from the state. The question is why he was attacked when other so-called oligarchs were not. And Khodorkovsky had attacked Putin and basically funded political parties who opposed Putin. And the conduct of the trial, the way it's been done, the sleazy legality of it all has raised many questions that the Kremlin is basically punishing Khodorkovsky.

BLOCK: Anne, thanks very much.

GARRELS: Thank you.

BLOCK: NPR's Anne Garrels in Moscow.

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