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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 19 March, 2003, 23:38 GMT
Putin backs contract army plan
Russian troops
Many parts of the army should be contract-based by 2007
Russian President Vladimir Putin has given the go-ahead for a plan for Russia's armed forces to be made up mainly of volunteers within five years.

Mr Putin endorsed the main provisions of the plan in a meeting with heads of the Defence Ministry, paving the way for the recruitment of some 167,000 volunteers by the end of 2007.

The 1.1 million-strong Russian armed forces currently have about 130,000 contracted soldiers.

Mr Putin urged the military to finalise the plan so that it could be approved by the cabinet by June and included in next year's budget.

Source of controversy

During the meeting, Defence Minister Sergey Ivanov reported on the progress of a pilot project - launched last September - in which a full division will be switched to contract soldiers.

He said that the experiment at the Pskov 76th airborne division would be completed by the end of the year.

But correspondents say pay increases at the division are a potential source of controversy.

Mr Ivanov said that a volunteer's minimum monthly pay at the division would be raised from 1 March to 5,280 roubles ($168), roughly equal to that of a lieutenant elsewhere in the army.

The army has faced difficulties recruiting and retaining officers because of low pay.

Stiff resistance

For the moment, Russia's military remains essentially a conscript force.

Conscription is unpopular and many young men are exempt for educational or family reasons.

Others simply fail to turn up for the draft because of widespread fears of poor treatment of young conscripts, miserable conditions and the war in Chechnya.

But Mr Putin's plan to abandon the draft and launch a swift transfer to a smaller professional army has met stiff resistance from senior officers, who say it would require a significant increase in the defence budget.

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