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Russia: Duma Backs Government-Sponsored Alternative To Army

Moscow, 18 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Russian Duma (lower house of parliament) took the first step on 17 April toward delivering on the promise of the country's 1993 Constitution, which gives conscientious objectors the right to choose a civilian alternative to compulsory military duty.

The Duma approved on first reading (251 to 158) a government-backed bill providing a three-year term for young men who agree to serve in civilian positions within the armed forces and a four-year term for those who choose to serve in civil institutions outside the military.Young men holding university degrees can serve roughly half that time.

The bill also requires those seeking alternative service to prove their pacifist beliefs are in earnest. A draft commission can reject the application of any person who is unable to offer a convincing argument of why he should be granted civilian service.

The lawmakers considered and dismissed two other versions of the bill calling for shorter terms. The terms of service may still be amended before the bill goes to its second reading, the date of which has not yet been scheduled.

Russian military has long opposed the passage of an alternative-service law, fearing it would strip the armed forces of soldiers and damage the state's defense capabilities. It was only in February of this year that government and military officials were able to reach a compromise and draft a bill allowing conscientious objectors to complete national duty in hospitals, hospices, and other state bodies instead of the armed forces.

The bill has its critics. Valentina Melnikova is the head of the Union of Committees of Soldiers' Mothers, an umbrella group comprising some 300 Russian organizations dedicated to protecting soldiers' rights and holding the military accountable for its treatment of conscripts. Melnikova says the bill aims to punish young men who opt for alternative service by extending their term of duty. Conventional military duty lasts two years, one for young men holding university degrees.

"Alternative service shouldn't be longer than conventional duty and it should be completed only in civilian positions. Moreover, young men shouldn't be required to provide proof [on why they opted for alternative service] and there shouldn't be any verification [of this]. In fact, [according to the government-backed bill], the draftee commission can hold private conversations with the draftees and also with their friends, their teachers, and with those they worked with," Melnikova said.

Vyacheslav Izmailov is a military commentator for the biweekly "Novaya gazeta" newspaper and an adviser to Yurii Shchekochikhin, the deputy chairman of the State Duma's Security Committee. Izmailov, who served in the army for 27 years, says without a reasonable civil-service alternative, people will continue to dodge the draft or pay bribes to avoid military service. Moreover, he says, people cannot be blamed for trying to avoid army service, because the military offers them very little in return. The Russian Army is notorious for its hazing and ill treatment of draftees. The ongoing campaign in Chechnya has also frightened many young men away from military service.

"People don't want to serve [in the army], because [they have to serve] in conflict zones, because they are humiliated there, because every year thousands of people die in the army. And I'm not talking about people who die during a war, but about those who die in peacetime army service. The army dismisses from service one young man out of 10 because of ill health -- and this loss of health comes while they are serving [in] the army. This is what draftees fear most," Izmailov said.

The government bill has to go through two more votes in the Duma, then pass in the Federation Council (upper house) and be signed by Russia President Vladimir Putin to enter into law.