Russia plans to reinstate Soviet era political officers in the army
* Moldova seeks military cooperation with Romania, while remaining ambiguous about CIS
* Belarus is balancing between Russia and the West

The Return of the Commissars

The Russian Army is planning to recreate the Main Political Directorate that existed in the Soviet Army (GlavPUR), according to the Deputy Chairman of the Public Council at the Russian Ministry of Defense, Alexander Kanshin. “The role of the moral and political unity of the army and society is increasing immensely at a time of global informational and psychological confrontation. Therefore, it is necessary to fundamentally reform and significantly strengthen the armed force’s entire [political] structure, which will organize, conduct and be responsible for the moral and ideological aspect of the Russian Army,” Kanshin said (Interfax, February 5).

This political structure “should carefully take into account the socio-political situation in the country, skillfully direct the energy of the army rank and file toward strengthening the country’s defense capabilities and increasing the combat readiness of troops,” explained Kanshin. Apparently, work on the project has already reached a detailed phase. The new Main Directorate, which Kanshin calls “military-ideological,” should, in his words, “possess sufficiently large authority and have a strict vertical structure within the armed forces—from each company up to the command echelons of all branches of the armed forces and all the way to the defense ministry.” According to Kanshin, it would be appropriate to form a new “organizational-political and ideological body” based on the current Main Directorate for Personnel of the Armed Forces.

Due to the terrible reputation of the Soviet GlavPUR, one of the most conservative and orthodox institutions of the USSR, Kanshin’s initiative immediately evoked sharp, negative comments in the press. A retired political officer wrote in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta that the new proposals “resemble the timing of any report at the next Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union” (Nazavisimaya Gazeta, February 5). The lack of official response to the initiative was interpreted as if the authorities consider the proposed revival of the political indoctrination system as no more than a personal idea of a nostalgic veteran. However, RIA Novosti published an article claiming that the initiative to restore the Main Political Directorate belonged to the Chief of the Main Directorate for Personnel of the Armed Forces, Colonel Mikhail Baryshev, who was appointed to his position in May 2017 (RIA Novosti, February 5).

If true, the rebirth of the Soviet-type GlavPUR seems a likely prospect. The state administration’s return to Soviet practices has become a trademark of Putin’s regime in recent years. The creation of political governance in the armed forces seems to be a logical step when the army has become the most important political instrument of the Kremlin. The authors of the idea to create a special body for carrying out a certain “state policy” among the troops ostensibly proceed from the assumption that such state policy would remain unchanged, just like Putin’s rule has not been replaced for a long time. In fact, this will be another institution aimed at safeguarding Putin’s regime. At the same time, the authors of the idea are ready to ignore the provisions of the constitution stipulating that no ideology can be established as a state ideology and made mandatory.

Ivan Konovalov, director of the Center for Strategic Conjuncture, believes that “patriotism will be put at the forefront” instead of “ideology” (Versia February 13). However, in Russia, the concept of patriotism has acquired a value far beyond just love for the Motherland. The Russian form of “patriotism” is a real ideology that includes Orthodoxy in its most primitive and fundamental version, and faith in the infallibility of the supreme power, both Imperial and Communist. This “patriotism” does not allow for any critical assessment of the history of the country. It is an “ideology” that the new GlavPUR will spread. Almost the entire male population of the country will be doomed to undergo this ideological brainwashing.

We should not forget that GlavPUR was responsible not only for the indoctrination of the Soviet soldiers, but its Eight Directorate was engaged in “special propaganda” aimed to demoralize the troops and civilian population of a potential adversary. A year ago, Vladimir Zhirinovsky offered to revive it. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu responded that “information operations troops have already been created. They are much more effective in what we had previously created in the direction of counter-propaganda. Propaganda should be smart, competent and effective,” Shoigu said (TASS, February 22, 2017). It is possible that these structures, which apparently continue to function today, would join the new directorate.

It would be a mistake to believe that the function of the new GlavPUR would be limited only to the ideological indoctrination of the armed forces. It is no coincidence that Kanshin spoke about a significant increase in the authority of the political directorate. Ideological indoctrination was one of the instruments of political control over the armed forces, the primary goal of the political commissars from the first days of the Red Army. The Soviet GlavPUR had the status of a Central Committee department of the Soviet Communist Party, and it carried out control functions concerning the entire Soviet Armed Forces. The deputy commanders for political affairs (political officers) in the armed forces ruined a massive number of military careers. All those who did not meet stringent standards of morality and ideological loyalty were persecuted and punished. For example, in the case of a divorce, the officer had to go through humiliating proceedings in his unit’s party committee, inevitably receiving a party penalty, which for a long time excluded any promotions. The political officers carefully watched during the endless political lessons during which no one deviated from the strict “party lines.” The officer regularly wrote up their commanders in “political reports.”

There is hardly anyone among those who began their military service in the USSR who holds warm feelings for GlavPUR—and this is almost the entire Supreme command of the Russian Army. However, the creation of an ideological directorate, experts say, promises the creation of new positions for military generals and officers. It is no coincidence that an unnamed source, quoted by RIA Novosti, reminded that the chief of the Soviet GlavPUR had a rank of Army General. According to experts, the deployment of an ideological network in the army, from the company to the military district, will require 6,000-8,000 political officers. It will be necessary to reopen the military-political schools, of which there were more than a dozen in the USSR. Possible costs will amount to at least 100 billion rubles ($1.8 billion). If the government goes to this expense, it will mean that the political control of the armed forces is a priority task for the Kremlin.

— Alexander Golts

Moldova Hopes to Boost Military Ties With Romania Amid Tensions With Russia

On February 4, Romanian Defense Minister Mihai Fifor arrived on an official two-day visit to Moldova. In a joint press conference, Moldovan Defense Minister Eugen Sturza thanked his counterpart and the Romanian government for its support in modernizing and developing the defense legal-strategic framework, educating 800 National Army service members in military institutions in Romania, as well as training Moldovan service members through participation in bilateral and multinational exercises alongside their Romanian colleagues.

Yet, the bigger news of the press conference was that the two ministers agreed to resume talks about a joint military battalion for deployment in emergency situations, similar to the Romanian-Hungarian-Ukrainian-Slovak Multinational Engineer Battalion Tisa. Strangely, this item was not included in the follow-up press release of the Moldovan defense ministry (Army.md; Deschide.md February 5). One reason was possibly that the idea of a joint Romanian-Moldovan battalion was first introduced in May 2015 by then Defense Minister Viorel Cibotaru (Army.md, July 21, 2015). It was subsequently promoted by his successor Anatol Salaru (Euroactiv.ro, August 20, 2015). Initially envisaged as a multinational peacekeeping battalion, it has failed to materialize to this day for several reasons.

Viorel Cobotaru’s tenure as minister lasted only six months. Meanwhile, Anatol Salaru held the position for a year and a half during highly turbulent political times that also spilled over into the national army with Salaru vying for influence with the Chief of the General Staff (seeEDM, March 28, 2016). During 2015-2016, the country was rocked by mass protests triggered by a billion-dollar corruption scandal (the equivalent of 12 percent of GDP was embezzled from three banks). This scale of corruption brought down the pro-European governing coalition, only to be replaced by one of the constituent parties of that very coalition in a de facto one party government controlled by oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuc. He took over the leadership of the Democratic Party on December 24, 2016 (Realitatea.md, December 24, 2016), a day after a pro-Russian president Igor Dodon was sworn into office. Three days later, upon losing the support of his Liberal Party, the ostensibly pro-NATO Defense Minister Anatol Salaru was dismissed by the newly elected pro-Russian president (see EDM, October 24, 2017).

The subsequent institutional deadlock between the government and the president left the defense portfolio vacant for ten months, until another pro-NATO defense minister was appointed following a controversial Constitutional Court ruling (see EDM, November 16, 2017). Needless to say, the general political instability, coupled with institutional deadlock and anti-Romanian rhetoric coming from the pro-Russian President Dodon, limited the space for Moldova’s defense cooperation with Romania, despite hopes that a bilateral agreement on military cooperation signed in 2012 would foster such ties (Army.md, April 20, 2012).

Nonetheless, as Moldova’s diplomatic relations with Russia are becoming ever more strained (Mfa.gov.md, January 31; see EDM, February 7; Hotnews.ro, February 8), Moldova’s de facto decision maker, Vladimir Plahotniuc, is seeking Western backing. Given his questionable legitimacy and anti-democratic record (see EDM July 25, 2017, Part 1 and Part 2), the response from the West has been less than enthusiastic. Still, thanks to his personal and political relations with Romania’s ruling Social Democratic Party, Plahotniuc can count on Bucharest. Romanian authorities and intelligence services, in turn, may believe that they can control Plahotniuc via several criminal files opened against the Moldovan oligarch-turned-politician (Adevarul.ro, February 13, 2014; Adevarul.ro, November 13, 2017).

Meanwhile, Plahotniuc has pleaded not guilty and accuses the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) of plotting against him by using the Romanian court system (Realitatea.md, November 20, 2017). This hardly contributes fertile ground for deeper military cooperation between Romania and neutral Moldova, especially during an emotionally charged centennial anniversary of Moldova’s unification with Romania in 1918.

This is why the largely technical issue of a joint Romanian-Moldovan emergency response battalion has stirred harsh reactions from the pro-Russian opposition, with President Dodon vowing to block the initiative (Adevarul.ro, Unimedia.info; February 7), as he has successfully blocked several Moldovan contingents from taking part in military exercises abroad earlier this year. The government then decided to ignore the president’s ban, while drafting a legislative workaround the president’s powers (Ziare.ro, September 6, 2017; Agora.md, September 13, 2017). Thus, a contingent of 60 service members and 12 vehicles from Moldova was dispatched to join the Platinum Eagle multinational exercises on February 12-16 in Romania’s Babadag military range without, this time, causing a domestic political standoff (Army.md, February 8; RFERL.org, February 10).

At end of the day, the government’s effort to boost military ties with Romania remains a largely symbolic gesture, aimed at creating the perception that Romania is backing Vlad Plahotniuc, and by extension, the West does too. Meanwhile, as the ruling Democratic Party, driven by electoral calculations, continues its controlled escalation of tensions with Russia, it keeps on subsidizing the separatist regime in Transnistria via energy imports from the region and remains coy about the possibility of Moldova exiting the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Newly appointed Minister of European Integration Iurie Leanca said it could happen once Moldova submits an EU membership application, which is not in the cards for the time being (EuropaLibera.org, January 25; February 9). Thus, despite all the tough talk coming from Chisinau, the Moldovan government shows no political commitment to boost its own defense capabilities and, unlike Georgia and Ukraine, remains part of the CIS—a relic of Russian dominance in the post-soviet space.

— Mihai Popșoi

Belarus: The Art of Keeping a Distance

“The world is one step from a global confrontation with unpredictable consequences,” declared Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka at the meeting of Belarus’s Security Council. “Whereas Russia will bear the brunt of defending our common space, there is no understanding on the part of Russia’s leadership that we need to be strengthening the most vulnerable facets of our national armed forces together. One has to understand that Belarus is the main advanced post of the Russian Federation in the West” (President.gov, February 13). At the same time, Lukashenka averred that he does not see any alternative to Minsk as the venue for talks on Ukraine’s conflict resolution.

Adept at reading between the lines of political declarations emanating from Minsk, Yury Drakakhrust, of Radio Liberty and Tut.by, discerns a divergence between form and substance in this particular case. On the face of it, Lukashenka pledges allegiance to Russia, but for all practical purposes, he is sending a message to the Western capitals. “Do you need Minsk the way it used to be, perorating about the monster of NATO creeping up to the borders of blue-eyed Belarus that is ready to lie down under your tanks? No? Then forget about moving the negotiations’ venue away from Minsk” and possibly approve of sending Belarusian peacekeepers to Donbas (Tut.by, February 14).

This reading of Lukashenka’s intentions may be on target. Primarily because in the increasingly geopolitical logic behind Belarus’s security concerns and dilemmas, maintaining Minsk’s role of a peace broker and having ties and arrangements with both geopolitical flanks is of existential importance (see EDM, February 14). Otherwise, it would be next to impossible to keep a safe distance between Belarus and its powerful eastern neighbor. Any new conflagration in Europe runs the risk of pushing Belarus into a still tighter Russian embrace. With this in mind, Belarusian pundits keep on invoking the idea of Helsinki-2, a platform for pursuing a broad international consensus on security in Europe reminiscent of the accord achieved by 35 countries in 1975 (Belarus Segodnya, February 3).

Keeping a distance, however, is more a delicate strategy and an everyday concern than an immovable target. As the crisis in Ukraine has demonstrated, any abrupt change in connections with Russia is dangerous, regardless of whether it is estrangement or a meeting of the souls. Whereas the latter implies losing your own identity or failing to acquire one in the first place, the former may surpass the ordinary people’s readiness to reckon with consequences and risks an open conflict.

On the one hand, Lukashenka is the only post-Soviet national leader, except Putin, who keeps on congratulating prominent Russians with reputations in the performing arts, established when the Soviet Union was around, with birthday wishes and condolences when they pass away. On the other hand, efforts are being made to ensure national allegiance of the ruling elite and its consolidation around genuinely Belarusian values. The former editor of the major government daily of Belarus, Pavel Yakubovich, confessed in his interview to the Polish publication Rzeczpospolita that he was conducting an information war with the chief activists of Russian TV propaganda, Vladimir Solovyov and Dmitry Kiselyov (Rzeczpospolita, February 11).

In his interview with Nasha Niva, a newspaper of the Belarusian opposition, Valery Voronetsky, now chairing the foreign relations committee of Belarus’s House of Representatives, averred that most Belarusian bureaucrats were patriots of the country and that Belarus’s history ought to be written in Minsk. Consequently, the upcoming (March 25) centennial of the Belarusian People’s Republic (see EDM, January 25) is an important milestone of Belarusian statehood—a confession that used to be taboo among Belarus’s officials (Nasha Niva, February 9). Alena Anisim, who chairs the Belarusian Language Society and is also a member of parliament (MP), agrees with Voronetsky. Although she encounters problems in spreading the Belarusian language in the public domain, Anisim, an opposition-minded MP, insists that a “trend of a serious attitude to a human being” is set at the very top of power (Svaboda, February 14).

Even the upcoming centennial of the still popular First Secretary of the Communist Party of Belarus from 1965 to 1980, Piotr Masherov, is now discussed from an unusual until now standpoint. First, it is mentioned that he might be a descendant of a soldier of the Napoleonic army, whose last name was Macherault. Second, Masherov’s father appears to have fallen victim to Stalinist purges. Third, during the war, the Soviet secret police was “even more suspicious than the Gestapo,” so partisan leaders like Masherov had a hard time proving their loyalty (Imhoclub, February 13). Finally, instances of Masherov’s disobedience to the Kremlin are now being hailed.

In sum, Belarus is becoming ever more Belarusian with each passing day. Those expressing judgment about it are best advised to take this into account as well as the delicate circumstances of its quest for informal independence.

 — Grigory Ioffe