Veterans Fall Prey to Racketeers and Bureaucrats

Russian "contract" troops returning from Chechnya complain they are being cheated of their hard-won wages

Veterans Fall Prey to Racketeers and Bureaucrats

Russian "contract" troops returning from Chechnya complain they are being cheated of their hard-won wages

On completing their tour of duty in Chechnya, Russia's "kontraktniki" (soldiers hired on a contract basis) face fresh battles on the home front. This time, they are up against enemies no less elusive than the Chechen fighters - namely, bureaucrats from the army commissariat, mafia racketeers and prostitutes. And the cost of defeat is their hard-won "battle money", up to $1,000 a month for the length of their service.

The phenomenon has reached such epidemic proportions that even the state-controlled ORT TV channel (which typically gives Russia's defence apparatchiki the benefit of the doubt) has already broadcast two reports from the little town of Yurga (in the Kemerovo Region) where the problem is rife.

Here, local racketeers target kontraktniki from the 74th Brigade, who are entitled to a lump sum of between 100,000 and 200,000 roubles ($3,500 to $7,000) on the day they are discharged. It is then the racketeers accost the veterans and demand up to 40,000 roubles in return for a safe passage home.

Other gangs use prostitutes to waylay the kontraktniki who are lured into cheap hotels, then drugged with powerful tranquillisers before being relieved of their cash.

According to a follow-up report by the Sevodnya daily newspaper, Yurga's Directorate for the Fight Against Organised Crime (UBOP) has so far been unable to launch a criminal investigation as the soldiers refuse to make official complaints - preferring to fight their own battles and even calling on reinforcements from back home.

In fact, the kontraktniki often find themselves trapped between the Scylla and the Charybdis, conducting a bitter rearguard action against corrupt bureaucrats who show increasing reluctance to pay the "battle money" at all. In some cases, veterans are forced to wait up to six months for the payments while "wage arrears" can go back as far as last July.

Many of the kontraktniki interviewed by the television reporters accused the military paymasters (the infamous "nachfiny") of extorting a percentage of the total in return for speeding up the process.

The "battle money" scandal has cast a long shadow over the Russian military operation in Chechnya, raising a number of ugly questions which the federal high command is hard pushed to answer.

Firstly, why is the military top brass doing nothing to address the issue - ie punishing the culprits in the paymasters' office who purposefully delay the payments in order to skim off their cut?

Moreover, why can't the Russian army paymasters follow the lead of the interior ministry and pay the kontraktniki through their local Sberbank (State Savings Bank)? Or by wire transfer at the very least?

On a more sinister note, how come the racketeers are so well informed about their potential victims? According to the TV reports, they have detailed knowledge of every soldier's movements from the day he leaves Chechnya to the moment he picks up his pay packet in Yurga.

Much can be blamed on the bureaucratic machine which processes the soldiers' wages. According to the existing scheme, the commander of each unit sends a report to the paymasters' office, which specifies the exact length of service and the extent to which the soldier was involved in combat situations. The army accountants then calculate an exact figure for the "battle money" which is approved by the commander of the Combined Federal Army Group in Chechnya. Finally, the relevant sections of the report are handed to the kontraktnik on the day of his discharge and then to the brigade in which he has served. It is the brigade which is responsible for footing the bill.

In other words, dozens of opportunities exist along the bureaucratic chain for the racketeers to get their hands on the necessary information.

At a recent press conference held to review the latest casualty figures, General Valery Manilov, deputy commander of the federal general staff, felt obliged to touch on the now highly political issue of "battle money". He announced that Russian commanders would be taking a more discriminatory approach to the existing system. As of August this year, only those who had actually been in combat would be eligible for "battle money" - as opposed to those who had served in the rear.

General Manilov went on to explain that it wasn't necessary for the soldier concerned to fire his weapon in anger as long as he actually saw front-line action. He then made it clear that it would be up to the commander of each unit to decide who was entitled to battlefield bonuses and who was not. Again, the final lists would be approved by the supreme military commander in Chechnya, General Valery Baranov.

On the surface, there would seem to be a thread of common sense in Manilov's solution - at the very least, it marks a departure from the old Soviet principle of "uravnilovka" (equal pay regardless of productivity). But the new policy is also a blatant case of na‹ve wishful thinking - a condition which the writer Nikolai Gogol would undoubtedly have termed "manilovschina" (cf. "Dead Souls"). Whenever an individual is given carte blanche to make arbitrary financial decisions, the opportunities for abuse and corruption increase tenfold.

Furthermore, these developments will do little to boost morale in the ranks of the Russian army. The only lasting way of combating these negative phenomena is to implement the long-promised military reforms aimed at building a professional army which pays servicemen a decent salary in times of war or peace.

But President Vladimir Putin has warned that this transition will be gradual - and a professional army will only be created when the Russian state can actually afford to maintain it. In the meantime, it is the duty of the army commanders to do their utmost to ensure the payment systems are as fair and transparent as possible.

Mikhail Ivanov is executive editor of Russian Life, a bimonthly magazine published by Russian Information Services, Inc.

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