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Published: Sunday, 10/3/2004

Putin's drive for control strikes Russia's parents

"If you got them by their throats, their minds and hearts will follow," to paraphrase a racy maxim.

This appears to be the rationale of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a fan of strong language, who once promised his nation to "waste [Chechen rebels] in the outhouse." Only this time it isn't the Chechens he is after. He is waging a war on Russians "proper."

If you put yourself in the shoes of this dictator wannabe, you'll see that the trick he is up to is truly ingenious. Having instituted the primacy of the government over the parliament, the judiciary, and the media, he is about to make his dictate near absolute - by controlling the future of Russian boys.

Russian parents are notorious for doting on their children. Since the Soviet times, parents' biggest scare is that their little Ivans would be drafted. That's understandable, considering that hazing fatalities are second only to Chechnya's death toll in the notoriously underfed, misused, and unsupervised Russian military.

The usual options for a drafted Ivan are simple: Be assigned to regular troops and serve in a war zone - Afghanistan in the past or Chechnya now - or end up in construction units, building dachas for generals.

To be sure, there are ways to dodge the mandatory draft. Here are the choices: bribe a drafting commission official, buy a medical excuse, fake an illness, break your own arm or leg, or go to college. So only 7 percent of those eligible for the draft end up drafted, according to official statistics.

But as Mr. Putin was tightening the screws, college emerged as the safest way out. So hundreds of private colleges and universities were happy to oblige.

Now the parents and private college administrations and faculties are fretting as the government is about to pull a plug on them.

The newly reshuffled federal service overseeing education is reviewing the licenses of private colleges and universities. At least two private universities in Moscow have already lost their licenses. Conscious of the fact that the ministry is acting on the Kremlin's order, hundreds of private universities and colleges across Russia are expecting to be next.

Russian authorities aren't even hiding the connection between the license reviewing campaign and the draft problems.

"Only seven of 100 eligible for the draft end up in the military today, tomorrow it may be one. There are no good or bad solutions here. We need to chose from what we've got," Andrey Fursenko, the minister of education and science, told a Russian reporter recently.

Isn't that something? Instead of protecting the interests of education in Russia, the minister of science and education puts the army first. But let it not fool you - his real concern is to keep his chair by pleasing the Kremlin.

That's post-Beslan Russia for you. Everything goes now as the Kremlin-controlled media are fanning mass paranoia in the wake of the hostage tragedy that killed hundreds, largely children, mostly due to incompetence of Russian authorities.

But even if 100 of 100 eligible for the draft get drafted, it won't help the Russian security. Russians already outnumber Chechen militants at a ratio of 100 to 1 if not more, and the war is nowhere near the end.

The Kremlin scam aims targets first and foremost the few remaining dissenting judges, parliament members, and editors, as well as a handful of liberal politicians. Mr. Putin is making sure they get the message - toe the party line or your precious Ivan gets snatched up by the drill sergeant.

And if they think their Ivan will find refuge in a state college, they should think again - their administrations are under Mr. Fursenko's direct control, and will certainly find an excuse to expel an "undesirable" student.



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