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Russia: Thousands Dodge Military Service as Draft Begins

Russian army unit in Chechnya (file photo) With the opening of the spring conscription campaign, the Russian army is once again struggling to fill its ranks. The annual draft, which began 1 April, aims to find 155,000 able-bodied men between 18 and 27. But it's not easy. The war in Chechnya and a reputation for brutality have made the army deeply unpopular. Thousands of young men across Russia hide from draft commissions and the police in order to avoid military service.

Moscow, 5 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Aleksandr has spent the past seven years learning to look relaxed whenever he sees a police officer.

Like many other young men in Russia, the 25-year-old Muscovite is hoping to evade compulsory military service. He's been successful so far:

"Sometimes you feel a little vulnerable if you see some policemen who might check your documents at any moment," Aleksandr says. "I think the Russian army, in its current form, isn't a professional one. It doesn't make any sense. It's just some kind of farce. That's why I simply refuse to be another cog in this machine."
Rights groups in Russia and abroad often blame the army for violating the rights of conscripts by recruiting scores of young men whose health should make them unfit for service.

The Russian army's prestige, together with its funding, plummeted after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It's been a serious setback for President Vladimir Putin, who has put a priority on reviving the country's demoralized army, even as Russia's grinding war in Chechnya is in its sixth year.

Rights groups in Russia and abroad often blame the army for violating the rights of conscripts by recruiting scores of young men whose health should make them unfit for service.

Aleksandr Petrov, who works for Human Rights Watch in Moscow, says the army is also known to raid popular hangouts such as bars and nightclubs to enroll conscript-age men:

"A year or two ago, such raids were carried out on a massive scale. Now we also hear reports that more raids are taking place in Moscow, in Saint Petersburg, or in other big cities like Novosibirsk," says Petrov. "Such things really happen quite frequently. Sometimes these arrests are accompanied by rough questioning and physical action."

The horror stories that circulate about hazing and abuse in the army only add to the reluctance of many young men to spend two years in the military.

Last October, during the last conscription campaign, Human Rights Watch said in a report that new conscripts faced grossly abusive and humiliating treatment.

Russia's military command reacted by saying the report overplayed the problem and vowed to stamp out abuse.

The practice of hazing in the Russian army is so common it even has a name, "dedovshchina," which roughly translates to the "rule of grandfathers." Rights groups say dozens of conscripts die every year during hazing rituals.

Valentina Melnikova, head of the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, a nongovernmental organization seeking to protect the rights of draftees, soldiers and their parents, fully sympathizes with men who refuse to serve in the army:

"Not all young men want to serve in the army, particularly those who don't want to go to Chechnya, get beaten up and made fun of, and who know that money is extorted there," Melnikova says. "The fact that people don't want to go to these stupid barracks is a totally reasonable opinion and wish. What we now have in Russia are Soviet armed forces, the same forces that entered Prague, Baku, that fought in Afghanistan and Karabakh. It's the very same Soviet army."

Conscripts d-o have an alternative -- a four-year non-military service. But it's widely viewed as too long and attracts only a handful of conscripts every year.

Affluent and educated families often manage to keep their sons out of the army. This means that poorer recruits make up a growing part of the armed services.

Many of these recruits suffer from ill health or alcohol or drug addiction, which has led the armed forces to regularly complain about the "low quality" of conscripts.

The General Staff recently announced that as many as 57 percent of conscripts drafted in the fall had health problems that prevented them from taking part in all of the army's standard exercises. More than one in 50 recruits had spent time in prison.

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