MOSCOW (Reuters) - A corpse in a Russian military uniform hangs in the air, his fist clenched around his neck, his eyes rolling back into his head.
“He hanged himself by the neck in the air until he choked,” reads the text under the picture in business daily Vedomosti on Tuesday, placed by a group for Russian mothers whose children have died in the armed forces.
The new ad campaign by non-governmental organisation Mother’s Right has splashed the illustration across Russian newspapers to draw attention to the 3,000 deaths it says occur every year in peacetime military service in the country.
Suicide is the leading reported cause of death in the military, says Veronika Marchenko, the chairwoman of the group. But she said the real cause is often bullying, a major problem cited by rights groups inside and outside the country.
“An excuse of suicide can hide anything at all, real suicide as well as murder,” Marchenko said in a telephone interview. “There are many ways that people die in the army, including being beaten to death.”
Accusations of violent bullying, or dyedovshchina in Russian, numbered more than 1,000 in the first five months of 2010, more than double the same period of the previous year, Vedomosti has previously reported.
The term ‘dyedovshchina’ refers to the seniority of officers who bully younger conscripts.
Conscripts, who make up two-thirds of Russia’s million-strong armed forces, are the usual target for victimisation by senior officers. Claims of suicide, says Marchenko, are an easy way to shift the blame for deaths.
Russia has been struggling for years to reform its armed forces, dogged by low morale and poor living conditions since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. While Russia crushed Georgia in a five-day war in 2008, the short conflict exposed technical problems and ageing equipment.
Changes introduced in the past two years, decreasing the number of officers and paid professionals, have left conscripts at the mercy of lower officers such as lieutenants and other more senior conscripts, who can use violence to punish anything deemed insubordination.
“That’s how they assert their authority in the absence of officers and that’s how the life of the barracks is organised,” said military analyst Pavel Baev, who works at the Peace Research Institute Oslo.
The military reforms are intended to make the armed forces more effective as well as weed out corruption, which Russia’s chief military prosecutor has been quoted as saying wastes millions of dollars of government funds.
President Dmitry Medvedev has said crimes committed in the military are dangerous because only a fraction reach military prosecutors, while even fewer cases are heard in courts.
Editing by Mark Trevelyan