MOSCOW (AP) — When one-time furniture salesman Anatoly Serdyukov was suddenly named Russia's defense minister, many career military officers smirked. Now after tens of thousands have lost their jobs under his reforms, the mockery has turned to rumbles of possible mutiny.
A union of veterans from the Airborne Forces, considered the most professional and proud branch of Russia's military, has set a protest rally against Serdyukov for Sunday. It is unclear whether any serving officers will take part, but the rally in a Moscow park down the road from the Defense Ministry has raised fears of an uprising in one of the world's largest armies.
Some observers say that the veterans' campaign against Serdyukov, the first civilian defense minister in 90 years, may have been orchestrated by members of the top military brass and weapons industries who have lost power and money because of his reforms.
"It's the most radical reform of the Russian military in 150 years," said Vitaly Shlykov, a retired military intelligence officer who advises the Defense Ministry on the reforms. "And it touches upon huge resources."
Serdyukov's reforms have cut six out of every 10 officers, disbanded nine of every 10 army units and introduced a two-year ban on the recruitment of new cadets into military academies. Shlykov and other backers of Serdyukov's efforts say that the painful cuts are necessary to turn the bloated and inefficient military into a meaner and leaner force. The reforms have been strongly backed by the Kremlin but have angered many officers and military veterans who see them as destroying Russia's armed forces.
"Serdyukov and his supporters have directly threatened the security of our nation," retired Col. Gen. Vladislav Achalov, the head of the Airborne Forces union, said in a video announcing Sunday's protest that was posted on the Internet.
Viktor Kremenyuk, a prominent Moscow security analyst who has closely followed the Russian military reform, said the cuts in the officers corps were long overdue but as a result 200,000 people "trained to kill" will be jobless.
"It's a rather cruel experiment with people who wanted to defend their country," he said. "I wouldn't exclude the possibility of some military leaders being inclined to carry out something like a military coup." He added, however, that he believed a mutiny unlikely as Russia has no strong tradition of the military taking power.
Shlykov shrugged off fears of a military uprising, saying that officers long have grown accustomed to the government failing to fulfill its promises.
Among those promises was one to give apartments to all 200,000 officers being discharged and help them get new civilian jobs. Achalov said the Defense Ministry has not come through — and has also denied basic benefits to many officers.
"They even reject giving disabled status to officers who were wounded in combat," he told Associated Press Television News.
Achalov supported the August 1991 botched hardline coup that briefly ousted Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and precipitated the breakup of the Soviet Union. Two years later, he joined a parliamentary rebellion against Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin. After spending several months in prison, he was freed under an amnesty.
While Achalov stopped short of criticizing the Kremlin and rejected talk of a coup, he insisted that Serdyukov must step down. "The military reform has been a failure," he said.
The rally planned by Achalov's union was triggered by Serdyukov's visit to the Airborne Forces Academy, where he gave a harsh dressing down to the head of the academy over the unauthorized construction of an Orthodox church on its grounds.
Shortly afterward, Russian news reports claimed that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had fired Serdyukov. The claim was quickly and angrily rejected by Putin's office.
Last week, the Airborne Forces commander, Lt. Gen. Vladimir Shamanov — seen by some as an intermediary between Serdyukov and the angry military brass — was badly injured when a car in which he was a passenger was rammed by a heavy truck.
One general was killed when he fell on a railway track near Moscow last month, and the body of another was found in central Moscow on the same day. The strange deaths of these generals and two others, as well as Shamanov's accident, have fueled conspiracy theories about an operation to sideline potential troublemakers, but no evidence of foul play has appeared.
In the face of the criticism, Serdyukov has made some concessions to the brass, including last month shelving a plan to transfer the navy headquarters from Moscow to St. Petersburg.
Serdyukov's supporters say that most of the military units disbanded as part of the reform existed only on paper and the number of officers in the military almost equaled the number of enlisted men. They argue that the bulky military structure inherited from Soviet times was diverting resources from a long-overdue modernization.
Nearly two decades after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the military continues to rely almost exclusively on Soviet-built weapons. Efforts to upgrade the aging arsenals have been stymied by rampant official corruption and a steady degradation of Russian industries.
Serdyukov himself has expressed shock at the scope of theft in the military and initiated the creation of a new agency in charge of ordering weapons for the military in order to combat graft.
He has been more discriminating in choosing weapons for the military than his predecessors and further angered the military industrial complex by starting to shop for weapons abroad, breaking with a tradition of complete self-reliance.
Serdyukov, 48, worked for 15 years in the furniture trade before joining the government tax service in 2000 when Putin became president. Four years later, he took over as head of the tax service and in 2007 Putin named him defense minister.
The weaknesses of Russia's military machine became apparent in the August 2008 war with Georgia, during which dozens of Russian armored vehicles broke down before reaching the combat area, while a lack of modern communications and satellite-guided weapons resulted in military losses from friendly fire and strikes on civilian areas.
Two years after the start of the reform, its organizers are still facing an uphill battle in trying to modernize weapons and raise troop readiness.
"The military hasn't become more capable yet, rather the other way round since it's in a state of transition now," Shlykov said. "But at least there is hope that it will become more capable after the reform is over."
Associated Press reporters Sasha Merkushev and Romain Goguelin contributed to this report.