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Helping turn Russian soldiers into civilians

A NATO programme aimed at helping recently and soon-to-be-discharged Russian soldiers prepare for lives outside the military is up and running in Moscow and should herald greater NATO-Russia cooperation in a range of fields.

Students and staff of the NATO-Russia Information, Consultation and Training Centre with Emilio Gasparini (front row, fourth from left) (© NATO)

The groundbreaking initiative involves the training of individuals who will themselves run orientation courses for former and soon-to-be discharged military personnel and their families throughout Russia to assist their reintegration into civilian life and help them find work. The first course began in June, less than a month after the signing of the Rome Declaration, the document establishing a NATO-Russia Council, though the programme has been three years in the preparation.

"This is the first real cooperative project between NATO and Russia," said Emilio Gasparini, project coordinator at NATO headquarters. "And it is helping address an issue of critical importance for Russian society."

The Russian armed forces are currently estimated to have some 1.4 million personnel, of whom some 400,000 are — according to Russian plans — likely to be made redundant in the near future. Since many of these soldiers have several dependants, the livelihood of more than a million people is at stake.

Given the scale of the challenge facing Russian society, the NATO programme is modest. The Alliance has earmarked $190,000 for the first year, a sum that is dwarfed by programmes of several, individual NATO members, the European Union and Japan in this sector. It is, however, of great psychological importance and could pave the way for greater, practical cooperation between the Alliance and Russia in Russia itself and more ambitious assistance programmes.

In addition to supporting programmes for the retraining of military personnel, NATO is exploring ways of assisting Russia in converting former military sites to civilian uses. The Alliance may also offer expertise in dealing with macro-economic issues, such as defining the place of defence within the national economy, and in improving the administration of the armed forces.

The local partner that NATO selected to run the "train-the-trainers" programme is the Moscow State University for Economics, Statistics and Informatics (MESI). This institution is partly state-funded, partly privately funded with more than 60,000 students in locations throughout Russia. The NATO-Russia Information, Consultation and Training Centre is located in two large rooms on MESI's Moscow campus, equipped with computers and it employs seven full-time staff.

The Centre is running five courses this year, each catering for 20 trainers. Courses include modules on Russian welfare legislation and how it affects the resettlement of discharged military personnel and their families; theory and methods of resettlement of former military personnel; organisation of professional retraining and upgrading of the skills of servicemen; the Russian labour market; the organisation of small and medium enterprises; and international programmes for professional retraining with regard to resettlement. The first class graduated in July with diplomas that are recognised by the Russian authorities and a second course is scheduled to begin in late September.

In addition to the courses, the Centre has established a telephone help line and an official web site with information of use to former military personnel as they forge new careers outside the armed forces. Among other useful information, the web site includes details of former soldiers who have set up businesses since leaving the military.

NATO-Russia relations have improved steadily since Vladimir Putin became president of Russia at the beginning of 2000 and more dramatically during the year since the terrorist attacks against the United States of 11 September 2001. The improvement in relations led to the creation of the NATO-Russia Council, a body in which all 19 NATO members and Russia deliberate together as equal partners to devise strategies to combat common security problems, and has generated great expectations about future developments.

*The web site of the NATO-Russia Information, Consultation and Training Centre can be consulted in Russian at www.centre.russia-nato.info.

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