Mass Firings as Russia Reforms Bloated Military

Nikolai Kulikov, a 51-year-old Army officer, says bitterly that he gave his best years to the Russian Army.

Kulikov did a series of assignments across the Soviet Union and spent the past 10 years as head of security at the Air Force base in Kubinka, 40 miles west of Moscow.

But today, he is one of 200,000 military officers who face early retirement, as Russia conducts a sweeping reform that will eliminate the jobs of six out of every 10 members of its top-heavy officer corps.

The government says reducing the ranks of senior officers is
just one of the changes needed to turn a behemoth institution of
more than 1.1 million personnel into a modern army trained to fight
terrorism and regional conflicts. But many in this army town say
the reform doesn't take people into consideration.

"When I entered the Army back in 1975, I thought I'd be given a
certain kind of lifestyle, you know, stability, housing, status,"
said Kulikov, sitting in the temporary two-room apartment he shares
with his 23-year-old son. "But after two decades, I have nothing
to show for it. This place is exactly the size of a jail cell."

Kulikov has been waiting for a new apartment for 13 years, but
claims he was removed from the waiting list several times because
he angered his bosses. He also says corrupt officials are demanding
$40,000 for his "free" apartment.

The reforms to the army were announced after Russia's conflict
with Georgia last year. Russia's army was designed in the Soviet
era to fight huge tank battles with NATO on the plains of Europe,
and it had a surprisingly hard time crushing Georgia's tiny,
lightly-armed military. The Georgians shot down at least four
Russian aircraft in five days, leaving Prime Minister Vladimir
Putin outraged.

Russia is not shrinking the size of its armed forces, the
world's fifth largest. As it reduces the number of senior officers,
Moscow plans to increase military spending and promote or recruit
more junior officers - molding a fighting force that more closely
resembles that of the United States, among others.

Most critics of the restructuring recognize it is needed. But
many here are worried about the backlash from in effect firing
hundreds of thousands of officers at a time when the economy is
shrinking and millions are unemployed.

To soften the blow, the military is offering its retired
officers a pension of about $400 a month and a free apartment. But
many say they've been waiting for permanent housing for years and
no longer believe in the government they spent decades defending.

"I feel very disappointed and bitter," said retired Col.
Vyaslav Solyakov, 51, chainsmoking on the porch of the trailer his
family has been living in since 2002. The trailer sits at the edge
of a parking lot and is home to 12 families, who share two
bathrooms and one kitchen. It was supposed to be temporary housing,
but seven years later, they are still there.

"During the upheaval, they needed the Army to protect the
country, but when we need the government, it's not there," said
Solyakov.

Inside the trailer, the conditions are dire. Some rooms have
mold on the wall, and most are only big enough to fit a bed and a
small table.

"I feel totally betrayed," said Solyakov's wife, Nina. "On
the weekends, when everyone is home, people have to stand in line
to wash the dishes. It hurts to even think about it."

Vyacheslav Solyakov retired last spring. But like thousands of
other families, the couple has been in limbo, living in temporary
housing provided by the military while awaiting a permanent
apartment. They share a small room with their 13-year-old daughter,
Valeria, where the walls shake from the washing machine next door.
Their 32-year-old son, also in the Army, sleeps in the living room.

Military analysts say the reforms are painful, but necessary.

"The system we have is hugely inefficient," said Aleksander
Golts, a liberal commentator who frequently speaks on military
issues. "We have two officers overseeing one soldier. It can't
continue."

It's not clear what kind of help the government will provide
beyond the pensions and promised apartments. More than two dozen
training centers have already been opened around the country, but
what they can actually accomplish remains to be seen, Golts said.
Many officers' skills are outdated, making it a challenge to
transition them into the civilian work force.

"What they really need to do is issue a one-time payment of
180,000 rubles ($6,000) to make sure people don't starve in the
first couple of months," he said.

Retired military officers have staged protests throughout the
country in recent months, saying the reform is not well thought out
and will actually make the country more unstable.

Meanwhile, some younger officers are getting restless too. Their
meager salaries - about $250 a month - are hardly enough to support
a family on, making a civilian career more tempting.

"Why should I torture myself on this job when I can earn five
times more in a civilian post?" said Vladimir, a 27-year-old
airplane technician who declined to give his last name because he
feared retribution from his superiors. "If I don't get my free
housing by the end of the year, I'm leaving."


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