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Russia’s new Foreign Legion

by Lidia Okorokova at 25/11/2010 20:16

Russia is set to welcome foreigners to serve in its armed forces for the first time, creating a French-style “Foreign Legion”, according to a new Defence Ministry proposal.

Under the plan, posted on the ministry’s web site this week, foreigners without dual citizenship would able to sign up for five-year contracts – and will be eligible for Russian citizenship after serving three years.

Experts said the change could open the way for CIS citizens to get fast-track Russian citizenship, and counter the effects of Russia’s demographic crisis on its army recruitment. Currently, foreigners can only serve in Russia’s armed forces after getting a Russian passport.

Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s envoy to NATO in Brussels, promoted the measure in a post on his Twitter blog, saying that that “foreigners are now able to serve in the Russian Army” on Wednesday.

Rogozin told The Moscow News that he welcomed the change, saying: “There should be a foreign legion in the army and a recruitment of foreigners on a contract basis.”

Targeting ethnic Russians

There are around 25 million ethnic Russians living in the former Soviet Union, and Russia has always been keen to welcome them back into the fold, Rogozin said, adding that joining the army would now be one way for them to serve the country.

“I believe that those ethnic Russians who reside outside of Russia and want to come back will be happy to perform their duties in the army,” Rogozin said.

Opening the books to foreigners could also pave the way for the recruitment of South Ossetian and Abkhazian soldiers, who fought alongside the Russian army in the 2008 war with Georgia.

But Rogozin said the new measure would not have any geopolitical effect, however, and was simply aimed at recruiting those who wanted to support Russia.

Alexander Golts, a military expert and an activist with the Solidarnost opposition movement, said the measure was likely aimed at plugging gaps in the military, due to Russia’s shrinking population.

“Russia is facing a demographical gap right now, and it’s doubtful we’ll be able to sustain an army of 1 million men in the future,” Golts told The Moscow News.

It first became possible for the Russian Army to recruit foreign-born citizens in 2003, when the Defence Ministry proposed a contract option. But so far, there has been only a limited take-up, with only 308 foreign-born nationals recruited - among them 103 Tajik and 69 Uzbek citizens, according to the Armed Forces HQ.

The new amendments would simplify procedures, so that foreigners would no longer to get a Russian passport before signing up, and that they should merely be able to speak Russian and have their fingerprints scanned.

US example

The US took similar measures during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, recruiting foreign nationals who were then fast-tracked for US citizenship.
But some military experts expressed doubts that the new scheme would attract many recruits, given generally poor conditions in the Russian armed forces, and problems such as racist attitudes and widespread traditions of bullying.

“It’s very unlikely that Central Asian nationals will agree to serve in the army for 10,000 to 12,000 roubles per month,” Alexander Khramchikhin, an analyst at the Moscow-based Institute of Military and Political Analysis, told The Moscow News Mikhail Barabanov, editor-in-chief of the Moscow Defense Brief, said that racism in the armed forces could be a serious issue, and that problems already existed with Russian soldiers recruited from the North Caucasus.

But Rogozin said combatting racist attitudes in the Army was “a task that society should perform, not just the armed forces or the government”.

Interest from CIS, Africa

Givi Meladze, a 45-year-old Georgian citizen living in Moscow, told The Moscow News that he would have considered signing up if he were younger.

“I discussed it with my friends from Azerbaijan and Tadzhikistan,” Meladze said. “They like the idea of getting Russian citizenship this way, but there are two questions they ask themselves: will they survive those three years - and will the law remain the same so they’ll get citizenship?”

Wasiu Okanlawon, a 26-year-old Nigerian working as a fashion model in Moscow, welcomed the idea of recruiting foreigners to serve in the Russian army, and said it should be organised in the same way as in the French Foreign Legion, with separate battalions of foreign soldiers.

Many impoverished Africans would consider joining up under the new scheme - to get Russian passports, he said.

“Thousands of them will join, as many people from poor countries like Zimbabwe and Somalia are used fighting wars,” Okanlawon said. “Before they were marrying Russian girls, not for love, but to get Russian passports.”

Elena Kirillova contributed to this report.

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