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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

No More Place for Criticism

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It is simply not true that the authorities have failed to react to the wave of crime sweeping through the army. The problem is that the authorities have decided to try to cure a serious chronic illness by treating only the symptoms. Reports of a recent session of the Military Prosecutor's Office that was attended by Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov suggested the meeting was full of contradictions. On the one hand, Prosecutor General Yury Chaika said: "The level of criminality among service personnel in the first half of the year rose by more than 13 percent and the level of mistreatment and violence by commanders by 3 percent. Such a situation demands that we mobilize all forces and develop new approaches." On the other, Chaika suggested that the Military Prosecutor's Office had "taken the position of a distant observer and critic and unnecessarily politicized several serious problems, raising a fuss in the media."

The problem is that while Ivanov was maintaining that 80 percent of army units had reported no instances of hazing, former senior military prosecutors were producing very different figures. Former Military Prosecutor Alexander Savenkov, for example, said the number of hazing-related crimes was growing by 25 percent annually. Ivanov told President Vladimir Putin that the army was switching to contract-based service; Savenkov said that one-third of those in the Pskov parachute regiment -- staffed exclusively by contract service personnel -- were discharged during their first year of service for drunkenness or insubordination. Military prosecutors did not hush up the horrific story of Private Andrei Sychyov, who was tortured by his fellow soldiers.

Military prosecutors who ignore stories like Sychyov's for years don't just suddenly recover their hearing. The rush to tell the public some of the truth about what is happening in the army is likely the result of a power struggle between various groups in the Kremlin.

By all appearances, the defense minister won this covert war: The whistle-blowers in the military were handed their marching orders. Chaika disapprovingly noted that "in recent years military prosecutors took an openly confrontational position toward the military command instead of working together." Clearly, their position now will be different -- especially because Ivanov has said there is no other option.

Tellingly, the main solution proposed by new Military Prosecutor Sergei Fridinsky was to transfer investigative functions from unit commanders to military commandants' offices. This is not likely to work, given that Alexander Beznasyuk, the prosecutor for the Moscow military district, said 6,053 people filed suits in the district's military courts in the first half of this year, but only just over a hundred of those were soldiers. His conclusion: "The draftees have no access to justice." Keeping investigatory powers in the hands of the military will mean no change to the status quo, and resisting "politicization" of the situation means no crimes will be reported.

This does nothing to address the problem of crimes in the military, as one of its causes is a complete lack of control. The state spends more than $20 billion a year on the army, but there is no accountability to civil society on spending. This is a breeding ground for theft. The Defense Ministry insists on its right to round up hundreds of thousands of young men for military service every year, but refuses to take responsibility for what happens to them. So talking about hundreds of young men beaten to death or committing suicide would be labeled as "politicization."

Instead of a broadly accepted form of oversight for the armed forces, including responsibility to the legislative branch, an independent prosecutor's office and a free press, the authorities are creating the facade of civilian control. The president recently signed a decree to create civilian councils in the "power ministries," including the Armed Forces. These councils will be formed by the Public Chamber and then approved by the head of the federal agency in question. Obviously, this Kremlin-licensed civil society will not permit any criticism not sanctioned from above. The army will continue to disintegrate.

And this may be the last reform we witness regarding crime in the army. Not because crime will stop, but because we will not hear about it. We are at the end of the road for "politicization" or, more accurately, for politics in Russia.

Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.