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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

State TV Runs Chechnya Ads

APA soldier on patrol in Grozny. TV ads tout a shift to contract soldiers in Chechnya.
With snowy mountains towering in the backdrop and a yelping puppy in their midst, a group of smiling soldiers posed for a picture, their crisp uniforms untouched by war.

Tucked between commercials for margarine and vegetable seeds, the ad shows two younger soldiers bidding farewell to superiors, as an announcer intones: "Starting in 2005, only volunteer contract soldiers remain in the Chechen Republic."

President Vladimir Putin announced the decision to switch to an all-volunteer military force in Chechnya last month, bending to public calls to stop sending young, undertrained draftees into Russia's hottest military zone. But you wouldn't know it's a combat region by watching television.

Channel One and other state-controlled stations have increasingly avoided any reference to hostilities in Chechnya, airing Soviet-style news broadcasts on subjects completely unrelated to the conflict -- such as the region's poultry farms.

A Channel One spokeswoman said the Chechnya ad had been placed by the Defense Ministry but refused to give further details.

Further tightening of already severe government controls over media coverage of Chechnya comes amid massive nationwide protests against the cutoff of social benefits -- the largest outburst of discontent in Putin's five years in power.

Valentina Melnikova, the head of the Union of Soldiers' Mothers Committees, a leading anti-draft group, described the Chechnya television ad as part of the government's efforts to assuage fears over the unpopular draft and hush up questions over the unresolved conflict.

"It looks like Soviet propaganda and is intended to pacify the population," Melnikova said.

She described the transfer to volunteer soldiers in Chechnya as bogus, saying that many conscripts are being lured into signing contracts by military officials who do not even tell them they would be sent to Chechnya, where the second war in a decade has entered its sixth year.

"It can hardly be called a contract, since it's not really a voluntary decision," Melnikova said.

A professional soldier in Chechnya earns 12,000 rubles to 15,000 rubles ($430 to $535) per month, almost twice the average monthly salary in Russia.

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said last month that the military would have about 21,000 volunteer soldiers in Chechnya.

At the same time, officials said last year that federal forces in Chechnya, including troops from the Interior Ministry and other agencies, total about 70,000. Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev said in December that only about half of the Interior Ministry troops in Chechnya are volunteers and pledged to fully switch to professional soldiers by 2006.

All men aged between 18 and 27 are required to serve two years in the armed forces or three years in the Navy. However, only 9.5 percent of eligible men were recruited in 2004, while others have evaded the call-up by enrolling in university or being excused for health reasons, often falsified.

The fear of being sent to Chechnya, along with vicious hazing and other crime in the armed forces, has contributed to massive draft-dodging.

Ivanov recently backtracked on his push for quickly ending student deferments that had drawn strong public criticism. Russian media speculated that his about-face was due to the benefits protests, which have taken the government by surprise.