Russian generals sent to Coventry

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The Independent Online
This week's Russian election, which returned Boris Yeltsin as president, temporarily interrupted the studies of nine students on an unusual course at Coventry University. The students: two Russian generals, five colonels and two military interpreters.

The aim of the course is for former Soviet officers to learn how democracies run their armed forces. The idea is to prepare the way for setting up a centre to study democracy at the Military University in Moscow.

On Wednesday proceedings were disrupted as the students went to vote at the Russian Embassy at Kensington Pal-ace Gardens, in London. As they resumed the course, they claimed to be satisfied with the result. "It's a victory for the reform process," said Colonel- General Yuri Chesnokov, a former air defence commander and one of the two generals on the scheme.

"We don't support Yeltsin per se," said Colonel Igor Lipsky, from the Moscow Military Retraining Institute, who prepares people leaving the Russian armed forces for civilian life. "We went to vote for the course of reform ... we hope that after the election other people will get involved in the reform process."

Colonel Lipsky knows General Alexander Lebed, who now has vast powers in national security and is a likely future president. "Many of his ideas are wise He's a good candidate to replace Yeltsin and solve real problems."

The course was Coventry's own initiative, based on the university's close links with Moscow University. Funding was obtained under the European Union Tacis programme to promote democracy in the former Soviet Union.

Ken Matthews, the academic director, explained that the aim is not to lecture the Russians on how to run their country. "We're not telling people how to run their own communities. It's matter of facilitating that," he said,

Once the Coventry course is complete, the centre will be set up in Moscow with all the necessary information technology, and supplied with reading materials relating to democratic control of the armed forces. A joint team from the university and the Russian group on the course will run further programmes for more Russian officers. Eventually it is hoped the centre in Moscow will become self-supporting.

"Studying the British experience is particularly interesting," said Major General Nikita Chaldymov, of the Russian commission on human rights. "We will, of course, study other democratic countries - the US, Germany and France, and some of the smaller ones."

Yesterday's guest lecturer was Michael Mates, the former Northern Ireland minister and a former chairman of the House of Commons Defence Committee, talking about the use of armed forces in support of the civil power. The debate quickly turned to Northern Ireland and Chechnya. "There are many similarities between the early stages of Northern Ireland and Chechnya," claimed Igor Solodov, an interpreter. And then, with charming innocence: "What would you say eventually put the conflicts on such a different track?"

Colonel Svetlana Khmelevskaya, the only woman on the course, asked whether there were any contradictions between military and civil law in Britain. Mr Mates explained that soldiers were subject to civil law at all times and that military law related only to internal disciplinary matters. So a soldier who felt he had been unfairly treated could take his commanding officer to court, suggested Vyacheslav Seregin, a military lawyer who had refused to serve in Chechnya. Not quite, said Mr Mates.

General Chaldymov said that all the lectures so far had been interesting, but the one on the role of the media, by a television correspondent, had had the most impact. "It was so practical," said General Chesnokov. "You have all this information coming in from every direction, but in the end it's what you do with it and how you transmit."

The Russian students were impressed by the ability of modern technology to achieve "transparency", and the impossibility of "controlling" the media in the fashion of past wars. But old habits seem to die hard. One of the participants' main questions was: how to jam satellite transmissions by journalists reporting on a conflict.