BACKGROUND: While army conscripts from Dagestan numbered up to 25,000 annually in the 1980s, their share has been dropping steadily reaching slightly more than 5,000 in 2007, around 3,000 in 2011 and less than 2,200 in 2012. The draft of this fall saw only 179 conscripts, signaling another radical shift in Moscow’s draft policy in the mountainous republic. In addition, the vast majority of Dagestani conscripts are now routinely assigned to non-combat units, particularly in the Ministry for Civil Defense, Emergencies, and Elimination of Consequences of Natural Disasters (MChS), and the Ministry of the Interior. The decrease in the numbers of drafted youth from Dagestan has brought about considerable discontent in the republic, where the commitment to undergo military service has traditionally ranked among the highest across the Russian Federation.
The families of potential conscripts are usually willing to pay relatively large amounts of money, ranging between US$ 3,000-4,000, to ensure that their sons are drafted to the army. However, even attempts by the natives of Dagestan and other North Caucasian republics to bribe local and federal conscript officers or applying for service in remote areas of the country has recently proven inefficient, indicating a clear-cut agenda on the part of federal authorities. Yet for many Dagestanis, a completed military service is a matter of prestige affirming the qualities of a mature male and defender of a family and clan, while obtaining a job in the military is particularly esteemed. Without a record of proper military service, an average Dagestani would be frowned upon by his fellows, considerably reducing his opportunities for marriage and career in a society where the archaic concept of honor persists.
The popularity of military conscription in Dagestan and some other areas of the North Caucasus stands in stark contrast to other parts of the Russian Federation, not least those populated by ethnic Russians, where potential conscripts and their families have used a variety of tricks such as unsatisfactory health, religious belief, postgraduate studies, and alleged homosexuality to avoid military service. Usually, even bribing local conscript officers is insufficient to avoid conscription. On the contrary, conscription officers have traditionally tended to at least comply with the vast annual draft quotas imposed by the Ministry of Defense, frequently implying that obviously unfit individuals have been drafted for military service.
Aside from the poor conditions of housing, diet, and clothing offered by the army, the main motivation for those seeking to avoid military service is the tradition of hazing (termed dedovshchina in Russian) in the Soviet – and now Russian – army that annually leaves hundreds, if not thousands of conscripts injured, humiliated, killed or forced into suicide. Many argue that the tradition of dedovshina, where senior conscripts are allowed by the officers to “drill” their junior fellows, has been tolerated deliberately to ensure order, hierarchy, and training to obey authorities.
IMPLICATIONS: Given the persisting difficulty for the Russian army to draft youth from across the country, Moscow’s commitment to significantly reduce the quantities of draftees from the North Caucasus, particularly Dagestan, is particularly compelling. On the one hand, as mentioned above, Dagestanis and other North Caucasians actively seek military service. On the other hand, their health conditions are often better than the average among Russian males of conscript age, which makes them objectively more fitting for military service than their peers across the country. Although the federal authorities have hesitated to address the issue properly in public due to its outmost sensitivity, one of the major – and widely debated – motivations for Moscow’s move seems to be what many in Russia consider an inborn proneness among North Caucasians to some kind of non-standard behavior in the army.
In fact, starting in the Soviet period, the natives of the Caucasus, particularly of its Northeastern part, have been known for their strong solidarity as they, unlike recruits from other parts of the country, stuck together fiercely regardless of their ethnic origins and supported each other in situations of conflict with whom they considered outsiders. Caucasians have also made themselves a reputation as “tough guys,” demonstrating tendencies to tackle disputes with their fellow conscripts by violence, and to disobey commands from older conscripts or even officers if incompatible with their perceived honor and dignity. In the understanding of a large number of Russian officers, such behavior has brought disorder into the military and caused multiple conflicts within the army units, leading to frequent incidents of both physical and verbal humiliation of conscripts drafted from outside the North Caucasus, particularly ethnic Russians, which have leaked to the Internet. This, in turn, has caused serious discontent among the Russian population and fueled the rising anti-Caucasus xenophobia which is reaching unprecedented proportions.
Another reason for de facto ending draft in the area is supported off record by some Dagestani and North Caucasian commentators. According to them, given the ongoing massive recruitment of Dagestani youth into the local insurgency, Moscow has come to the conclusion that it is unwise to provide militarily training for Dagestanis, many of whom are likely to join the Islamist jamaats. Dagestan has recently turned into the hotbed of the North Caucasus insurgency (see the 09/29/2010 issue of the CACI Analyst) outnumbering the incidents of violence in other republics of the region. This fact has recently prompted Moscow to concentrate dozens of thousands Ministry of Interior troops Army troops, deployed in Spring 2012 and Fall 2012 respectively, supported by thousands of FSB officers, to this tiny republic with a population of three million (see the 11/14/2012 issue of the CACI Analyst).
Needless to say, a Dagestani that has not undergone military service is highly unlikely to obtain a job in the republic’s Ministry of Interior, indicating the lack of trust among the Russian law enforcement agencies toward the Dagestani police that, unlike its Chechen colleagues, have proven incapable of conducting effective counterinsurgency efforts.
CONCLUSIONS: Though federal authorities have generally claimed that the general reduction in the number of conscripts reflects a preference for quality over quantity, the proposal to reduce conscriptions by around 10 percent across the Russian Federation does not seem to be the reason for the factual end of recruitment in Dagestan. Whatever the motivation for such a policy, it certainly widens the gap among ordinary Dagestanis, many of whom have not necessarily held negative attitudes toward the notion of Russian statehood. Indeed, according to many Dagestanis and other North Caucasians, Russians are increasingly treating them as second-class citizens, withholding from them one of their key constitutional rights, and the end of military conscription should be understood as one of the first institutionalized steps in that direction.
Yet, it could be argued that under the current circumstances of extreme xenophobia directed particularly toward natives of the Caucasus, experience with military service in the Russian Army could reinforce the already existing negative attitudes among young Dagestanis toward Russia and the Russians, rather than enhance their sense of communality and devotion to the nation for which military service is usually esteemed. In fact, the current policy resembles that of the Tsarist period when youth from the Muslim provinces, particularly the restless North Caucasus with its frequent separatist rebellions, was exempt from drafting in the Russian Army due to their perceived disloyalty to the state. Similarly, many Russians have expressed their displeasure with what they consider to be additional evidence of Moscow’s privileged treatment of the North Caucasians, who are granted what many young Russians try hard to achieve.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Emil Souleimanov is assistant professor at the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. He is the author of Understanding Ethnopolitical Conflict: The Wars in Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia Reconsidered (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming in 2013) and An Endless War: The Russian-Chechen Conflict in Perspective (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2007). te Director of the Center for Future Security Strategies at the Hudson Institute.