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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Armies of Plaintiffs Fight for Their Pay

Each year more than 150,000 servicemen file civil suits in military courts over anything from back wages to the right to wear a tracksuit in their barracks, a top judge said.

The number of civil suits peaked at 211,000 in 2001, as tens of thousands of military servicemen went to court to claim unpaid wages that had mostly piled up in the 1990s when the so-called power agencies were too cash-strapped to pay on time, the deputy chairman of the Supreme Court's military board, Anatoly Ukolov, said in a recent interview.

Just over 150,000 suits were filed and heard by the civil boards of military courts last year, the 62-year-old judge said. That figure accounted of 70 percent of all suits heard by the country's 150 military courts.

"Civil suits have been our main work for the past three to four years," said Ukolov, who holds the rank of lieutenant general and has worked in the military court system since 1967, serving as a judge in garrisons from Chita in eastern Siberia, to Budapest, Hungary.

He said about 70 percent of the civil cases focus on wage arrears. For instance, 36,990 of the 150,888 suits heard last year focused on the nonpayment of food subsidies.

While wage arrears peaked in the second half of the 1990s, it took servicemen some time to realize that they had the post-Soviet right to challenge their superiors in court and that military courts were no longer under the control of the Defense Ministry, Ukolov said.

Oftentimes the courts find in favor of the servicemen. A Defense Ministry official explained this by saying the military lacks qualified lawyers to fight the lawsuits. He added, however, that in any case it is next to impossible to contest claims of unpaid wages.

The large number of suits "shows that servicemen are increasingly becoming integrated into civil society," said the official, who asked not to be identified.

Military courts were handed the right to consider civil suits by servicemen in 1996, while the courts were re-assigned from the jurisdiction of the Defense Ministry to that of the judicial branch of the executive power in 1999, Ukolov said.

Servicemen have the option of filing civil suits in either military or civil courts, he said.

But a number of servicemen have tried to settle their disputes over unpaid wages out of court. In one high-profile example, Major Igor Belyayev drove a T-80 tank out of his unit in the Nizhny Novgorod region and parked in front of the local administration's offices in the settlement of Novo-Smolino in July 1998. He soon was joined by dozens of other servicemen and their families who also were upset about back wages. Their demands were not immediately met, but a senior commander promised to "settle the conflict."

The response would not have been so prompt if Belyayev had decided to go to court, but the outcome would have been more favorable, Ukolov said. Plaintiffs won almost 90 percent of the cases they filed in 2001 and 2002.

"Servicemen would be better off demanding their pay in court rather than on tanks," Ukolov said.

The decline in lawsuits in the past two years suggests that the military has become more prompt about paying wages. However, some arrears remain, such as combat fees to those who fought in the 1994-96 and ongoing military campaigns in Chechnya, Ukolov said. Courts hear thousands of suits over combat fees every year, he said, but could not provide exact statistics.

A recent report in the Gazeta newspaper estimated that combat fee claims in the court system total about 30 billion rubles ($1 billion).

In addition to suing over arrears, servicemen are challenging the actions of their commanders. Last year, 711 suits were filed over disciplinary measures, while 756 suits contested commanders' orders to servicemen to pay for damage they allegedly did to military property, Ukolov said.

At least one officer has gone as far as to challenge his commander's views of what is proper attire on military premises. He sued his commander's decision to reprimand him for wearing a tracksuit in 2001 but lost, Ukolov said.

The military's 150 courts include 138 garrison courts, 13 district courts and the military board of the Supreme Court.

The courts hear civil and criminal cases involving the more than 2 million servicemen in the Defense Ministry, Interior Ministry, Emergency Situations Ministry and the Federal Security Service and its Federal Border Service.