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Saturday, August 19, 2006

On Dedovshchina and Nuclear Security

Reuters reports that the barbaric Russian practice of dedovshchina is now having possible reprecussions for Russian nuclear security, and hence undermining world peace.

MOSCOW (Reuters) - On August 3, Russian conscript Ivan Shinkaryov flipped the safety catch on his rifle and shot himself dead. It was sad but unremarkable: in Russia at least 1,000 conscripts die each year in non-combat incidents.

What made the suicide stand out was the fact that Shinkaryov was part of a unit guarding a facility that produces weapons-grade plutonium and stores tonnes of radioactive waste.

In the past eight years, 17 of the recruits in Shinkaryov's Interior Ministry Troops unit no. 3377 have died. Most committed suicide, the rest were killed by fellow conscripts or died in firearms accidents and from beatings.

Accounts of life inside unit no. 3377 tell of bullying by older recruits -- a ritual known as "dedovshchina" -- sordid living conditions, psychologically disturbed conscripts and officers powerless to help.

Officials say there is no security risk. But anti-nuclear campaigners worry that a unit this troubled is not up to the job of defending a facility which, security analysts say, could be a terrorist target.

"This complex is, in effect, not protected," said Vladimir Tchouprov, head of the energy unit at Greenpeace Russia. "The conscripts ... who are supposed to be guarding it are busy with 'dedovshchina' and suicides."

SECRET CITY

The nuclear facility is in Zheleznogorsk deep in the Siberian taiga. Founded in 1950, the town was one of Russia's "closed cities," known for years only by its postcode, Krasnoyarsk-26, because authorities wanted to keep it a secret.

It is ringed by fences and the 100,000 residents are only supposed to go in and out through checkpoints.

Buried inside a mountain that looms over the town, the plutonium-producing nuclear reactor is almost impossible for outsiders to reach. The radioactive waste is stored in buildings on the surface, said Tchouprov.

Vasily Panchenkov, head of the press service for the Interior Ministry Troops, said the facility is secure. "Our troops are on the outer ring," he said. "The atomic facility itself is guarded by other people."

Greenpeace disputes that. In 2002, its activists walked into Zheleznogorsk and, unchallenged, climbed onto a roof in the complex that stores spent nuclear fuel, said Tchouprov.

"Since then they built a concrete fence ... (but) it is stupid to think that is going to stop someone who wants to blow up the millions of curies of radioactivity stored there," he said.

TROUBLED ARMED FORCES

Most Russian conscripts carry out more mundane tasks than guarding a nuclear installation. But the problems of unit no. 3377 are common to the whole of Russia's armed forces.

Lavatories for many of the unit's 900 servicemen are holes in the ground. "The toilet bowls have been stolen," said Alla Safonova, local head of campaign group the Soldiers' Mothers Committee, who has been visiting the unit for 15 years.

Prosecutors have charged several servicemen with assaulting and degrading fellow recruits. Eight of the deaths since 1998 have been linked to "dedovshchina" or "the rule of the grandfathers."

This brutal practice made headlines this year after doctors had to amputate a conscript's legs and genitals after an assault by fellow recruits at a Ural mountains tank academy. The case shocked many Russians, who saw it as proof that military commanders cared little about the welfare of young soliders under their care.

Five days after Shinkaryov's death, 19-year-old Dmitry Krupkin threw himself out of an upstairs window, suffering spinal injuries. He told Safonova a fellow conscript had been demanding he pay him 3,000 roubles ($112).

The Interior Ministry has tried to tackle the problems. The unit's commander was sacked 18 months ago. Generals have visited from Moscow. Psychologists have been drafted in and an Orthodox priest even blessed the barracks.

"But unfortunately we have not been able to turn this situation around," said Panchenkov.

Campaigners say the root of the problem lies in the way youngsters are drafted into Russia's armed forces.

Most families pay a bribe -- it can run into several thousand dollars -- to get their sons out of compulsory two-year military service. Some borrow from relatives or sell their belongings to scrape together the cash.

The men who end up being drafted are usually from the bottom of the social pile: they are unhealthy, poorly educated, and likely to have grown up in families with drug or alcohol problems.

Draft boards do not turn them away because they are under pressure to fill the ranks.

Out of the 246 conscripts who reported for service at the unit in May, 12 were sent home because they had psychological disorders, said Safonova.

The answer to the unit's problems is a simple one, said Natalya Degraf, who runs the Soldiers' Mothers Committee in nearby Krasnoyarsk.

"Lads who are psychologically unstable should not be sent to serve in a strategically important installation."

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