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Chechnya lifts Russ army image

Published: Sunday, Nov. 21 1999 12:00 a.m. MST

MOSCOW -- Something strange is happening to the Russian military.

Young men going off for obligatory military service are being showered with flowers by well-wishers as military bands belt out old army tunes. TV networks broadcast variety shows featuring soldiers and veterans singing and talking about good times in the ranks.After years of decline, the military's image has perked up, largely thanks to Moscow's war against Chechnya. Strong popular support for the war reflects rising nationalism that is helping lift the stigma of incompetence, brutality and aimlessness that has stained the military for years.

This fall's draftees are being treated with respect instead of the pity normally given those consigned to two years under the cruel conditions that have long dominated military life.

In a typical, pomp-filled ceremony of speeches and orchestral crescendos, 70 conscripts were inducted recently in a Moscow movie theater. Girlfriends and mothers sprinkled them with kisses. Passers-by nodded approvingly as the young men filed out to head off for the army.

"I'm not ashamed to serve my country," said conscript Alyosha Davydov, 17, his arm around his grinning younger brother. "If I have to go to Chechnya, then I have to."

Russia's generals, shamed by the disastrous 1994-96 Chechnya war and the Soviet pullout from Eastern Europe in the early 1990s and from Afghanistan in 1989, are exercising a political confidence not seen in years.

Russian newspaper and television coverage daily shows hardy commanders claiming sweeping victories and minimal casualties. It's a far cry from the dying conscripts and broken-down tanks that filled newspaper front pages and television screens during the last Chechnya war.

The military is also working to assure conscripts and their families that life is getting better in the armed forces. Some units have held open days, at which teenage boys get to handle Kalashnikov rifles and other weapons while listening to soldiers' stories of being in action.

Even prominent liberals are whistling a military tune. Anatoly Chubais, one of the country's most pro-Western politicians, said recently: "The Russian army is reviving in Chechnya, faith in the army is growing and a politician who does not think so cannot be regarded a Russian politician. In this case there is only one definition -- a traitor."

No one is pretending that the military's problems have vanished. Soldiers are still underfed, underpaid and barely trained. Russia's economic woes mean the army hasn't received new weapons in years. Hazing is fierce and endemic. Desertion, suicide, alcoholism and corruption are rampant in the ranks.

And the military's new status may not last long. While the first weeks of the Chechnya campaign have gone smoothly for Russia, the fighting is likely to get bloodier and drag on for many months.

Unless casualties among troops are kept low -- or kept quiet -- Russia could soon be back to army-bashing. It was the high casualties among young, ill-trained conscripts that angered so many Russians during the 1994-96 war.

Although they opposed the last war, many Russians now see Chechnya as a lawless threat to the rest of the country. Chechnya-based militants twice invaded Russian regions in August and are blamed for bombings that killed 300 people in Russian cities.

Russian commanders are desperate for things to go well and say they won't let bureaucrats, or Western criticism of the campaign, hold them back.

Maj. Gen. Vladimir Shamanov, head of the Russian western command in Chechnya, recently said to the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta: If the government "tries to stop the army, there will be a powerful exodus of officers of various ranks. The officers' corps may not survive another slap in the face."

Not everyone has fallen in love with the army. The respected Soldiers' Mothers' Committee says the government is underreporting casualties and that conditions on Chechnya's front are dismal: little but bread and water to eat, tattered uniforms left over from World War II, delayed paychecks.

Elmira, a bookkeeper who did not give her last name, frowned throughout the ceremony in which her son Sergei was inducted.

"These conscripts are too young to have been betrayed by their government. They see the tough guys on TV (fighting in Chechnya) and that's attractive to them," she said.

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