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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Old Political Role for Army

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There's good news and bad news concerning the role that Russia's armed forces will play in the upcoming State Duma and presidential elections.

The good news is that military leaders play an increasingly minor role in elections. The bad news is that this in no way means that the country is moving any closer toward becoming a democracy.

In the turbulent 1990s, military officials took a particularly active role in politics. Recall how the late General Lev Rokhlin, hero of the first Chechen war, appealed to military commanders not to obey orders from then-President Boris Yeltsin. And then there was former Defense Minister Nikolai Rodionov, who said that if Russia could not fulfill the demands of the armed forces, then the country -- and not the army -- should be changed.

But President Vladimir Putin is in a much stronger position since military hawks have demonstrated their open support for him. One vivid example of this is Duma Deputy Valentin Varennikov, one of the main participants in the August 1991 coup attempt against President Mikhail Gorbachev. Varennikov has been outspoken in his support for Putin.

In theory, it is possible that the serious problems facing the armed forces could become an important issue for the various political parties to debate in the Duma election campaign. After all, even official sources admit that hundreds of conscript soldiers die from various crimes, hazing and other incidents while serving in noncombat roles.

During the last Duma election campaign, Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces attempted to put the military reform issue at the forefront of their party platforms. And although the condition of the armed forces was as bad then as it is now, this attempt was a dismal failure. And it would surely fail again in this year's Duma campaign.

To be fair, the Kremlin has made good on its promise to reduce mandatory military service to one year, but many are concerned that the authorities will be forced to reverse that decision within two years. This is because only 860,000 young men will turn 18 in 2009, but at least 600,000 recruits will be needed. This means that the government will have to make changes in the terms of the draft. But this does not worry anyone, since Russians are used to viewing military service not as a profession, but as a tax of sorts. At the same time, they consider paying bribes to keep their children out of the army an effective method of fulfilling their "tax obligations" -- in the same manner that Russians have been doing for many centuries.

In previous Duma and presidential elections, the military represented a serious electoral resource. Technically, political propaganda is prohibited in army barracks, but conscripts are still voters and it isn't difficult to imagine that these young men, who are far removed from politics, will faithfully vote exactly as their commanding officers dictate.

But with Putin's high popularity ratings and his decision to head up United Russia's ticket, the authorities might not need the army to perform this function this time around. The result is that the armed forces might not have the same direct influence on the political process as in previous years.

Unfortunately, all of this does not mean that the armed forces now play the same role in Russia as they do in established democracies. Although it is true that the army is losing its independent political role, this is happening only because Russia is increasingly developing according to the strict Soviet model in which the military must obediently fulfill all of the Kremlin directives -- no questions asked.

Thus, when the Kremlin declares that Russia is encircled by enemies -- above all, the United States and NATO -- the only thing that the military top brass can do under Putin's vertical power model is follow the line.

In this light, when General Yury Baluyevsky, head of the General Staff, opposed Putin by stating that Russia's withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty could lead to serious, irreparable consequences, he took a big risk by publicly questioning a decision of the commander in chief.

The political role of the army is definitely diminishing in Russia. As it turns out, this trend is characteristic not only of democracies, but also of a country that is cast firmly in the Soviet mold.

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