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Hazing in the Belarusian army

On 31 March, Arciom Basciuk, a soldier in the Belarusian army, committed suicide because of hazing. Less than a year earlier, another soldier shot himself during a military exercise for the same reason. Psychological pressure and the hierarchical structure...

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Scenes from the movie 'Viva Belarus'. Source: pressroom.rferl.org

On 31 March, Arciom Basciuk, a soldier in the Belarusian army, committed suicide because of hazing. Less than a year earlier, another soldier shot himself during a military exercise for the same reason. Psychological pressure and the hierarchical structure of the Belarusian military means that runaways are commonplace, as are complaints, lawsuits, and sometimes even suicides.

If official statistics are to be believed, fewer and fewer soldiers have been filing complaints about obligatory military duty since 1994. However, human rights activists claim that this data has been falsified, and hazing remains an important issue in their campaigns. Compulsory military duty has become an instrument of the state to neutralise political activists. In order to combat hazing, the state must first admit there is a problem and make concerted efforts to monitor and reform the military system.

The Tradition of Hazing

Hazing, meaning a violation of soldiers' rights by other soldiers, is a widespread phenomenon in many Post-Soviet militaries. Although military duty is supposed to be served on equal terms for every soldier, hierarchies within its internal structure persist. These hierarchies comprise three levels: ‘dziady’ (grandpas), ‘čarpaki'’ (dippers), and 'slany' (elephants). The longer a soldier serves, the further he rises in the system, eventually becoming a ‘dzied’ (grandpa).

In Belarus, hazing remains pervasive. According to an interview with a soldier in the independent newspaper Nasha Niva in early April, those lower down in the hierarchy are expected to serve 'their superiors' by buying them food or drinks. Additionally, rookies have few rights when it comes to services such as mobile calls. Reportedly, those higher up receive benefits such as longer travels home from the army administration, which keeps silent about the rampant inequality.

Statistics suggest that hazing has become less of a problem since 1994: in 2014 the Ministry of Defence concluded that hazing had diminished from 11 cases per 1,000 soldiers in 1994 to 1.6 in 2014. Nevertheless, official statistics consistently ignore instances of suicide and runaways, only mentioning occasional violations of army statutes, reports Idea. According to human rights centre Viasna, hazing remains the most serious problem in the Belarusian army.

Hazing in Belarusian Army

Hazing often has severe repercussions on soldiers' mental and physical health. One example is that of Andrei Andryjanau, who was completely healthy when he started his military service in 2015. However, after three months, doctors diagnosed him with cancer and Andryjanau died several months later. His mother insists that her son's death was caused by hazing.

In order to avoid hazing, many soldiers resort to running away from military facilities illegally. One such case occurred in February of this year, when two friends from Brest Region left their post without permission. After hiding from the administration, they finally arrived home, claiming they were forced to escape because of violence and money extortion by ‘dziady’. Similar instances are reported every year.

The most serious hazing practises can lead to death. In 2008, one Valery Shkuta began his military service near the town of Zaslaul; less than a year later he was beaten to death. The army administration, however, initially called it ‘an accident’. Nevertheless, in December 2009, eight former soldiers received prison sentences for the lethal beating of the young man. The investigation revealed that Shkuta was beaten because he refused to bring tools to soldiers higher up on the pecking order.

Suicides because of hazing happen rarely but are nonetheless systematic. Artsiom Bastsiuk bid his final farewell to his parents on 30 March and committed a suicide a day later. According to his parents, the hazing he experienced while serving in Barysau had involved severe psychological pressure and blackmail. Before his suicide, Bastsiuk informed his parents that higher-ups pushed rookies to buy or bring them food and do hundreds of push-ups a night. The Ministry of Defence refuses to comment on the instance, and the investigative committee has failed to initiate a case.

Is There a Way to Stop Hazing?

Some soldiers attempt to combat hazing by filing lawsuits. The best known example of this was in 2013, when 20-year old Akim Benesh accused a fellow soldier of assault. Although the case started out as a ‘fight against hazing’, it ended with a criminal case against Benesh himself. The court eventually decided to drop the case, and the investigative committee stopped its investigating and did not attempt to punish the offender.

Human rights defenders campaign actively against hazing and compulsory military duty. In 2016, the human-rights centre Viasna initiated a campaign in Homiel called ‘Stop arbitrariness in the army – protest against hazing!’. The campaign's messages mainly related to the authorities' turning a blind eye to hazing. Sadly, the campaign activists were unable to effect much change as they could not persuade the government to face facts.

The army has also become a political instrument to prevent activism. In 2012, a Swedish advertising company dropped teddy bears on Belarusian territory from an airplane with slogans demanding greater freedom of speech in Belarus. Later, Belarusian photographer and activist Anton Suryapin published photos of the incident. The KGB detained him and searched his apartment.

After his release ten days later, Suryapin was conscripted in the army. Many political activists continue to receive letters of conscription and lose access to political or civic life. The authorities employed a similar strategy when they conscripted youth activist Francišak Viačorka, who had previously received an exemption from military duty.

Hazing is also characteristic of neighbouring countries. For instance, in 2016 Ukrainian courts presided over 49 suits related to hazing. Meanwhile, the Russian Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu reported that in 2016 hazing had decreased by 34%. However, in comparison with Russia and Ukraine, Belarusian hazing garners much less attention.

In Ukraine, human-rights activists created a 'Committee of Soldiers' Mothers' to monitor and report violations of soldiers' rights. Similarly, the Russian 'Union of Soldiers' Mothers' is highly active and boasts many regional offices. In January 2016, the union also unveiled a mobile app for victims of hazing. Unfortunately, there are no similarly well-organised groups defending soldiers' rights in Belarus.

Although hazing practises in Belarus have been on the decrease, the phenomenon continues to have serious repercussions. Soldiers still resort to bullying and follow hazing traditions. Nevertheless, authorities tend to cover up cases of hazing and rarely report instances.

To overcome hazing, the Belarusian army is in dire need of reforms aimed at making military structures more transparent. An important step would be the creation of a military police force or monitoring agency to address violations of soldiers' rights.

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Alesia Rudnik
Alesia Rudnik
Alesia Rudnik is an analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre and MA student at Stockholm University.
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