By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
USSURIYSK, Russia -- As a young officer fresh out of a Soviet military academy, Alexander Primak was assigned to serve in this frontier city in the Russian Far East, eight time zones away from his home town in Ukraine.
He spent the next quarter-century in the region, moving from garrison to garrison, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel. But he always dreamed of moving back west, counting on the government's promise to reward officers with apartments upon retirement.
Now, as the Russian government pushes ahead with an overhaul of the military that eliminates the positions of more than half the army's officers, Primak is jobless at age 46 and stuck in Ussuriysk waiting for an apartment he may never get.
"They're finding any excuse not to keep their promises," the gray-haired colonel said coolly, maintaining ramrod posture as he sighed over a plastic cup of coffee in a roadside eatery. "When we were young, we put the motherland first. We were ready to tolerate discomfort and wait for something better. . . . Of course I'm disappointed."
Low morale over pay and housing has afflicted the Russian military since the fall of the Soviet Union, but grumbling in the ranks is rising sharply as President Dmitry Medvedev attempts to carry out the most ambitious restructuring of the nation's armed forces since World War II in the face of a severe economic downturn.
The plan seeks to transform an impoverished, unwieldy conscript army built to fight a protracted war in Europe into a more nimble, battle-ready force that can respond quickly to regional conflicts. Key to the overhaul is a drastic reduction in the number of officers, who now account for nearly one in three Russian servicemen.
By eliminating thousands of officer-only units that were designed to call up draftees in wartime, and moving to a leaner, brigade-based structure, Medvedev intends to cut Russia's officer corps from 355,000 to 150,000, dismissing more than 200 generals, 15,000 colonels and 70,000 majors.
The plan has run into stiff resistance, with some top military officials resigning in protest and the Kremlin firing others. Retired generals and nationalist politicians have accused Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of scaling back Russia's military ambitions by essentially giving up on trying to maintain an army capable of confronting NATO.
Officers and troops have staged scattered demonstrations across the country against the reform plan, which would also shut dozens of military hospitals, schools and research institutes. A top complaint is the government's failure to provide apartments to all officers who are discharged after more than a decade of service -- a benefit that dates to the Soviet era and is written into Russian law.
The apartments are important because military pay has lagged far behind the cost of living and few officers have enough savings to buy homes. But the army has suffered a severe housing shortage since the fall of the Soviet Union, when a wave of servicemen in need of lodging returned to Russia. The military's construction efforts have been plagued by corruption and inefficiency, and hundreds of thousands of active-duty officers as well as retirees are on waiting lists for accommodations.
"Our military organization, our fleet, has cheated me with housing," said Vyacheslav Zaytsev, a former submarine officer who was interviewed on television during a protest in the arctic city of Murmansk. "A homeless officer is a shame for a nation," read one demonstrator's sign.
"In our region, over 3,000 officers will be fired from the navy alone. . . . Where will these people go? How will they live?" said Boris Prikhodko, a retired vice admiral, before a protest last month in nearby Vladivostok, the provincial capital and headquarters of the Pacific Fleet.
Under the law, retiring officers can request apartments anywhere in Russia or ask to keep the quarters assigned to them by the military. But in practice, most who have been sent to the Far East have little chance of getting housing anywhere else when they are discharged.
When Primak became eligible for retirement, for example, he asked for an apartment in Kursk, a city near the border with Ukraine, where his parents still live. But he was released without being given any apartment. "I realized then that in Russia there are laws that are enforced, and other laws that are maybe for the future," he said. "What they say on television and do in reality are completely different."
He and other officers in this city of 150,000 say local authorities have fallen behind in housing construction and have begun using loopholes to discharge officers without giving them apartments.
Some have been given certificates that aren't worth enough to buy adequate homes. Others have been relieved of duty but formally remain registered with their units with minimal pay so commanders can keep them on waiting lists.
The worst off are officers stationed in the scores of military garrisons scattered across the countryside here, isolated outposts that have fallen into severe disrepair and are set to be closed as part of the shift to a brigade structure. Many of these officers have been told to just keep their current quarters, which often lack running water.
"These poor guys have to stay the rest of their lives in these ruined garrisons, without even minimal sanitation conditions," said Vladimir Kaplyuk, a retired colonel who heads an aid organization for veterans in Ussuriysk. "But after the units are shut down, there won't be anything left but these officers there. No troops, no jobs, nothing."
Technically, Kaplyuk said, the officers will be on waiting lists for housing. "But for how long?" he said. "Some officers here have been waiting 12 years already."
One 48-year-old lieutenant colonel assigned to a garrison near the Chinese border said he was offered a certificate that would have allowed him to buy only a tiny studio apartment on the outskirts of Ussuriysk or a rural house without a sewer system or running water. When he refused to take it, he was discharged without an apartment and had to sue his commanders to get reinstated.
"I felt like they seized me by the scruff of my neck and threw me away as if I was something useless," said the colonel, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who asked to be identified only by his first name, Viktor, because he feared reprisals. "I'm upset with everyone -- the state, the commanders -- and there are many people like me facing similar problems."
Officers said it would be difficult for them to unite and pose a serious challenge because they are forbidden from engaging in political activities. They said local authorities have been effective at containing dissent, recently quashing an attempt by discharged officers to stage a protest and arranging for them to gather in a room outside the city instead.
The Kremlin has also pledged to upgrade equipment and weapons and to sharply increase wages for the officers who are not dismissed -- promises that have helped it win support in the military for the reform plan, analysts said.
But most of the planned cuts and dismissals have yet to be completed, and discontent could rise further if the economy worsens, they said.
Alexander Ovechkin, 50, a lieutenant colonel in Ussuriysk who retired without receiving an apartment, said officers are frustrated in part because Medvedev and Putin have raised expectations, repeatedly pledging to build enough housing for all discharged and active-duty officers by next year.
"You can feel the social tension and uncertainty," he said. "They have promised a lot. . . . I'd like to believe it, but my experience is too sad."