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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

How the Military Will Vote

With the presidential elections only several days away and political tensions in Russia as high as ever, more and more people are asking: What will the Russian armed forces do? How will the army vote? Are the troops gradually slipping out of control, and what political forces will they back in an emergency? But there seem to be no clear-cut answers to these questions. The Russian armed forces are too diverse to speak with one voice.


There are the conscript soldiers who are mustered in for two years. Such soldiers -- in all, over 1 million men -- perform national service not only in the Defense Ministry, but also in the Interior Ministry, in the border guards and other paramilitary forces. The main desire of the majority of these soldiers, 18 to 20 years old, is to get out of the army as quickly as possible and in one piece. They are not particularly interested in the long-term prospects of military service or the well-being of the Russian armed forces. In the coming election, they will be led by their superiors in organized formations to the voting booths.


Still, the conscripts will most likely vote in the army the same way they would have voted in their home towns and villages, splitting their preferences among the main contenders. Communists are not very popular with young voters, and Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov will hardly get a substantial lead from this constituency. Young conscripts also are more susceptible than professional soldiers to give in to semi-official urging by their military superiors in the Defense Ministry and the General Staff to vote for President Boris Yeltsin.


But on the other hand, today's conscripts grew up during a time when the totalitarian system had already collapsed, and they are rather used to expressing any political views without fear. Therefore, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, retired general Alexander Lebed and Grigory Yavlinsky should also get their fair share of the conscript vote.


The second major social group are the professional soldiers and officers. There are approximately 1 million professional military personnel in the Defense Ministry forces at present, including up to 100,000 officers' wives who are employed as contract soldiers. The Defense Ministry also employs 600,000 civilians. Half a million more professional servicemen are enlisted in the Interior Ministry's armed units, the border guards, the Federal Security Service and other paramilitary forces. If family members are included, the military vote is estimated to be over 5 million strong.


The professional Russian military as a social group has been very badly hit by post-communist change in Russia. The pay is low, the service conditions are harsh and housing often inadequate. Yet its main grievances are more fundamental than simply pay and conditions.


The majority of today's Russian officers and generals joined an army that they, as novice military cadets, believed to be the strongest in the world. And then they witnessed the collapse of this army and the empire it served. The Russian military has turned into a disgruntled, disillusioned and revisionist force. The majority of military chiefs wish for the return of the Soviet Union in some form or another and of its great army. They do not like the way the Yeltsin government is treating the armed forces. It is commonplace in any army garrison to talk of a plot by the Russian government to destroy the Russian armed forces.


Military professionals do not like the war in Chechnya and constantly talk of how politicians are holding up the army. They also bitterly object when civilians and the press criticize their performance in Chechnya. The military feel ostracized by society and believe that former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev's and Yeltsin's ill-considered reforms are the main cause of all Russian disasters.


The professional military will hardly vote for Yeltsin en masse. Yet the majority of officers can hardly be called devoted communists. The military vote will be most likely split between Zyuganov, Zhirinovsky, Lebed and Yeltsin. But with more than 80 million Russians expected to vote on June 16, the voice of the military will be largely drowned.


Only if the presidential election in Russia results in civil strife can the Russian military become a nationwide broker of power. At present, it is impossible to predict which side, if any, the army would support if an "unconstitutional" situation developed in Russia. As in October 1993, such a decision could be made at the last moment by a few top-brass generals.





Pavel Felgenhauer is defense and national security affairs editor for Segodnya.