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Russia: Bill Not Likely To Change Plight Of Conscientious Objectors

  • Francesca Mereu

Although Russia's 1993 constitution does legally clear the way for an alternative to army service, a federal law on the alternatives has yet to be passed. In February, however, the Russian government took a step forward, approving a bill that will allow young men to complete national service outside the military. But many Russians criticized the bill, saying it will require draftees opting for alternative service to serve twice the time regular conscripts spend in the army.

Moscow, 25 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- After years of debate, the Russian government on 14 February approved a bill on alternative service. If passed, the bill will finally deliver on the promise of the country's 1993 constitution to grant conscientious objectors the right to choose a civilian alternative to compulsory military duty.

Russia's military has long opposed the passage of an alternative service law, fearing it would rob the armed forces of soldiers and thus damage the state's defense capabilities. It was only recently that the government was finally able to find a compromise solution with the General Staff and draw up a draft that will allow conscientious objectors to complete national duty in hospitals, hospices, and other state bodies instead of the armed forces.

But many in Russia have criticized the bill as punitive, because the proposed term for alternative service is longer than the two-year term of conventional duty. Alternative draftees who agree to serve in civilian positions within the armed forces -- performing administrative and janitorial duties -- will have to serve three years. Those who chose civil institutions outside the military will be expected to serve four years.

The General Staff defends the four-year term, saying that a conscript is on duty 16 hours a day, while an alternative serviceman will work in accordance with the Labor Code -- that is, only eight hours a day.

Valentina Melnikova is the head of the Union of Committees of Soldiers' Mothers, an umbrella group founded in 1989 comprising some 300 Russian groups dedicated to protecting soldiers' rights and holding the military accountable for its treatment of conscripts. Melnikova considers the longer terms for alternative service a way of punishing young men with anti-militaristic beliefs for their principles.

"Two things [in the bill] worry me: the four-year term of duty [outside the military] and the possibility that [some young men] have to complete civil service within military camps. In my opinion these are the most dangerous points [of the bill]," Melnikova said.

Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based independent defense analyst, said Russian generals see alternative service as little better than draft dodging and may try to prevent such service from existing anywhere but on paper. Felgenhauer noted that according to the bill, alternatives draftees will be also required to explain why they are refusing traditional military service. A drafting board will then be entitled to decide whether to permit the draftee to serve in alternative service or not.

"This variant on the law will essentially create a false showcase for alternative service. Of course, a few thousand people will be permitted to complete the service, so that Russia will be able to say that it has an alternative service," Felgenhauer said. "But the [bill] contains every possible trick to avoid what the General Staff fears most: that the alternative service will turn into a mass trend. [For example,] the principle that will be used to decide [who will be granted alternative service] is the 'proof principle.' This means that a person has to provide proof [of why he thinks he cannot perform the military service]. After that, he can be denied the right to alternative service. So it doesn't change anything."

Felgenhauer continued: "[With the new bill, the military] can still plan their conscriptions. If the alternative service was like it is in the Western countries, where a young man can simply say, 'I don't want military service, I want civil service,' the military would not be able to anticipate how many draftees would enroll."

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov recently told Russian television the state is obligated to determine whether the statements made by conscientious objectors are authentic or not, and pointed to instances where he said objectors were found to be falsely presenting their case. Ivanov also said that military recruitment offices will not be the ones responsible for deciding who is granted alternative service. Instead, a conscription commission -- made up of civilians and with a single military representative -- will be handed that task.

Draft dodging became endemic in Russia following the start of the second Chechen campaign in the fall of 1999. Defense Ministry statistics say the spring 2001 draft resulted in the enrollment of just 12 percent of the country's eligible young men. Melnikova of the Union of Committees of Soldiers' Mothers said that young people don't want to serve in the army because they are afraid of being sent to Chechnya and because of the army's notoriously abusive treatment of conscripts, which often involves hazing and forced manual labor.

"Young people do not want to go where they are going to be humiliated. They don't want to go where they could be sent to fight [in Chechnya] against their own countrymen," Melnikova said. "This is the reason why we believe young men have the right not to serve this criminal military service."

Andrei Rodionov is a 24-year-old conscientious objector and a member of Russia's Anti-Militarist League, which advises young men on how to avoid the draft. In 1998, a Russian court ruled in favor of his right to alternative service -- which, in the absence of a civil alternative, he said he has not yet been able to fulfill.

Rodionov said that if the Duma approves the government proposal, young men will simply continue to dodge the draft or pay bribes to avoid military service.

"I don't like what [the army] does. In particular, I think that the Chechen war is a terrible crime being committed by both our country and our army," Rodionov said. "I don't like the way our army is organized. It cannot be called an effective army. It is composed of slaves who don't want to serve in it. Moreover, they are unable to do anything since they are not trained [by the military]. And after all, they just want to eat. I have my own interests and I don't understand why I have to give two years of my own life to the state, or to the generals who would like to use me as free labor to build their dachas."

Melnikova said she believes a reasonable civil service law could help to find a solution to the problem of draft dodging. She said young men who do not wish to serve in the military still represent valuable manpower to badly understaffed hospitals, orphanages, and other civil institutions.

No date has been set for the bill to be presented to the State Duma, but Russian media speculate that the bill will meet with little resistance from the Kremlin-friendly parliament.

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