Drafting Students Means Trouble

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Just before New Year's, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced that all draft deferments would be abandoned, including those given to university students. The draft in Russia's unreformed military is the equivalent of a prison sentence: inadequate food, hazing, scanty medical services and, on top of that, the possibility of being sent to war in the Caucasus.

In Russian villages and in many small towns, life is so miserable, and unemployment so widespread, that military service is seen by many as acceptable, as a way to escape. That is where the military gets its soldiers, from the economically underprivileged, badly educated lower class.

In recent years, the number of conscripts was sufficient to fill the ranks. However, generals complained that the conscripts' education was not strong enough to allow them to serve in postings such as radar stations, which require more than basic knowledge. And in a couple of years, a draft crunch is coming, the second generation descended from those born during World War II.

In the Soviet era, university students enjoyed draft deferments, and some were not called up even during wartime. The Kremlin considered sustaining the intellectual potential of the nation more important than getting extra foot soldiers. The first time students lost their deferment was in the late 1970s during the previous demographic crunch when the small generation of the children of those born in the 1940s was called to serve. The measure was highly unpopular, especially among the Soviet elite, and it helped build the public discontent that in the end destroyed the Soviet Union.

In the late 1980s, deferments for students were reintroduced. Soon after, conscript service was reduced from two years to one and a half. After the first war in Chechnya in the mid 1990s, service terms again grew to two years, and now deferment for students is being abolished. The State Duma will surely vote to change the legislation at the Kremlin's first bidding.

The Kremlin is appeasing the Defense Ministry, which wants more conscripts. At the same time, the public is being told that if deferments are eliminated, service terms may be reduced from two years to one. It is already clear that deferments will be abandoned, but the question remains whether one-year service will be introduced at the same time. Or will it wait until 2008 and appease the masses right before the next presidential elections?

Mustering students as conscript soldiers will not modernize the military. The Soviet mass conscript army with university students as foot soldiers performed miserably in the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In the modern world, nation after nation is abandoning the draft for relatively small all-volunteer armies, while Russia maintains a massive and unruly military it cannot keep in line or provide with efficient new weapons.

Maintaining the draft and calling up students will cause political discontent, and it makes little sense militarily. So why is it being done and who will gain from the changes?

Sane Russian parents with sufficient means do everything possible to save their sons from the terrible ordeal of serving as conscript soldiers. Young men currently have two ways to dodge the draft: to go to a university or to bribe military officials and get an "unfit for service" certificate on medical grounds. There is competition in the market of helping draft dodgers, which helps keep prices reasonable.

The system of bribery within the military is well organized. One contacts a middleman who, after considering the case, announces the price: If the boy indeed has health problems that make him unfit for service, the price is lower. Without a bribe, however, even unfit boys will serve. Regular customers get discounts: A health deferment from service is given for three years and must be renewed until the boy who was first deferred at 18 turns 27 and is too old to be drafted.

The middleman in most cases takes the money only after the "unfit for service" certificate has been issued. No results -- no pay. The medics and the military also get a cut of the bribe.

The amount of money involved in draft dodging is huge: Researchers estimate that Russian parents pay deans and professors up to $5 billion per year in bribes to get their children into state universities. Now that students will be drafted, the military will be able to pocket most of that money. This alone is reason enough for officials to change the draft rules.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst based in Moscow. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times, where he is a columnist.