The New Year holidays were saddened by an emergency situation: 24 servicemen of a unit of the Railroads Force stationed in the Mga village (the Leningrad Region) left the unit without permission. The Military Prosecutor’s Office of the Leningrad Military District stated that these were privates and sergeants, including those who would be demobilized in spring 2003. Colonel Igor Lebed, Military Prosecutor of the Leningrad Military District, said that the majority of AWOLs – 20 servicemen – were detained and sent to the military unit. He also said that two servicemen – a private and a junior sergeant – were taken to hospital with injuries.

Judging from preliminary reports, the privates and sergeants conflicted with junior commanders on New Year’s Eve, after which the privates and sergeants decided to escape from the military unit. Meanwhile, there is another theory about the AWOL case. Colonel Alexander Komarov, Chair of the Press Service of the Federal Railroads Service Force (FRSF), told WPS that the motives for the soldiers’ escape have not been determined yet. However, it is known that the soldiers drank alcoholic drinks in the military unit on the night of January 3/4. According to the officer, the Chief of the Staff of the military unit tried to stop the booze-up. However, the soldiers offered resistance and beat him. As a result, “One of the men holding a commanding post in the unit tried to bring the barracks into proper order” and after that, 24 soldiers, mainly having served for one and a half to two years, left the military unit and complained to the “Mothers of Soldiers” organization (St. Petersburg) about officers violating military regulations in the unit.

The Military Prosecutor’s Office of the Leningrad Military District has started a criminal case regarding abuse of power (Article 236 of the Crime Code of the Russian Federation). Military prosecutors and morale officers of the FRSF are now investigating the incident in the military unit. The inspectors are headed by Lieutenant-General Vyacheslav Bury, Deputy Commander of the FRSF for Morale.

Such a symbiosis of representatives of the Military Prosecutor’s Office and military structures usually takes place when incidents are connected with barracks cruelty. Meanwhile, the stream of negative reports from the Army increases in the media, and the military leadership does not notice this and makes cheerful statements. For instance, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov stated with optimism at a meeting in late November that the crime rate in the Army and the Navy decreased in comparison with 2001. According to him, the number of AWOLs decreased by 21%; the number of crimes linked with illegal drug circulation, thefts of state property and ammunition went down by 34%, 42%, and 44% respectively. It is hard to believe this statement.

When commenting on the recent escape from the railroads unit, Sergei Ivanov noted that AWOLs are caused by commanders’ negligence. The Minister stated: “Everything depends on particular commanders. Escapes to Committees of Mothers of Soldiers is another aspect which alarms me. I consider it normal, if a serviceman complains about his commanders to the Military Prosecutor’s Office. Complaints to civil organizations raise many questions.”

Meanwhile, there is a logical explanation for why soldiers address social organizations. Soldiers do not trust military prosecutors. In 2002, the number of complaints about local military commanders and officials sent directly to Moscow, including to the Main Military Prosecutor’s Office, increased by 100%; those sent to the Committee of Mothers of Soldiers increased by 150%. As a rule, servicemen ask law enforcement structures and social organizations not to resend their complaints to military control bodies. Military prosecutors acknowledge that, “Servicemen are losing faith in the ability and will of commanders to solve their problems”.

In other words, in Russia and in her armed formations there are no civil institutions able to defend the interests of rank and file soldiers and non-commissioned officers, or for that matter – of officers. Russia has failed to create efficient institutions of civil oversight over the Army, despite its 10-year experience of creation of a civil society.