Vienna – Moscow officials said yesterday that they would welcome having non-Russian immigrants serve in the Russian military, a declaration that reflects that country’s worsening demographic situation but one that is certain to frighten and even anger many Russian nationalists.
In an article entitled “I Serve the Fatherland! A Foreign One: Gastarbeiters are offered Service in the Russian Army,” the Moscow newspaper “Trud” reported today that Col. Gen. Nikolay Pankov, the deputy defense minister, had recently pointed out that under Russian law, “the citizens of foreign states have the right to serve in the [Russian] military.”
The paper added that its sources in the ministry have indicated that “there will not be any propaganda campaign” to recruit them, “but if their numbers increase” – and the number of foreigners serving in the Russian army now is only 308 – “this will only be welcomed”.
Given the worsening economic situation, the number of foreigners who have applied to join the Russian military in the past year was 669, but most were rejected either because of their poor knowledge of Russian, problems with their health, age, or low level of education, the paper said, citing Col. Gen. Vasily Smirnov, who oversees conscription and personnel.
Foreigners were given the chance to serve in the Russian military by a series of amendments in 2004 to the country’s basic law on military service. That law does not specify just which foreign citizens could do so – “theoretically,” the paper said, “an Australian aborigine” could serve.
But “Trud” suggested that “unofficially” military offices have been given “an order to take for service only citizens of the CIS and the Baltic countries,” with preference given to “ethnic Russians” between the ages of 18 and 30. Such people cannot become officers unless they take Russian citizenship, although that is available to them on a simplified basis.
Those foreigners who do join up, the paper continued, do not enjoy many of the benefits that Russian soldiers do such as vacation time and so on. Moreover, they do not take the standard military oath. Instead, they sign a document committing themselves to obey orders, “serve the people of the Russian Federation,” and “defend” it against its enemies.
Those now serving include citizens of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia, plus two from Latvia, two from Germany, and one from Israel. Despite this diversity in citizenship, two-thirds of the total are ethnic Russians, military officials told the paper.
Five years ago, after the law allowing foreign citizens to serve was passed, the Russian military planned to recruit “no fewer than 1500” foreigners each year, but so far, it has not even come close, although the appearance of the “Trud” article suggests that perhaps Moscow intends to step up this effort, despite statements that it has no plans to do so.
But if the defense ministry is able to attract more foreign citizens into the Russian army, perhaps as a result of rising unemployment among Gastarbeiters, such an achievement would likely generate a serious backlash among Russian nationalists, including some in the officer corps, who often suggest that their country is being “overrun” by migrants.
Many Russian commentators routinely express concern about the rising share that ethnic minorities from within the Russian Federation already form in the ranks, and the appearance of significantly larger numbers of non-Russian, non-citizens would spark protests by the Movement Against Illegal Immigration and other groups.
(Some of these groups, however, would be more than mollified if in any effort to attract non-citizens to the colors, Russian defense ministry personnel would try to attract an even higher share of ethnic Russians. That is something many nationalists would like to see, especially if these people quickly became citizens.)
But even if it makes an effort, Moscow is unlikely to succeed in attracting many foreigners given the reputation the Russian military has for harsh conditions, corruption, and brutality within the ranks. And indeed, there are some ethnic Russians who are Russian citizens who are now choosing to serve in the army of another country.
According to a BBC report picked up by Kontury.ru yesterday, a number of Russians living near the Estonian border who enjoy dual citizenship with that Baltic country, “prefer to serve in the Estonian army,” despite Russian government efforts to dissuade them from doing so.
Ivan Bobryashov, the chief of the border administration in Pskov oblast, said that “the names of all those who have served in NATO forces are well-known. In the future, they will not be able to serve in the Russian army, the Russian government or in [Russian] law enforcement agencies. These young people,” he said, “have put a cross on their career.”
The BBC reported that these young Russians prefer the Estonian military because the length of serve there is only eight months and there is “practically no ‘dedovshchina,’” the Russian term for the often brutal treatment of new recruits by those who have been in the military longer and by officers.
The news service reported that the FSB is worried that Russians with dual citizenship can pass through the border without Moscow officials knowing about it and that Estonia or NATO might somehow seek to use them as “a lever” against the Russian Federation sometime in the future.
This class of people in the western section of Pskov oblast arose because under the 1920 Tartu Treaty, that area belongs to Estonia, although after 1945, Moscow redrew the border and included it within the RSFSR. That has prevented the two countries from ratifying a border agreement and now it has led to this new “problem” as well.