Conscripts' Dirty Deal

With the advent of long-awaited legislation on alternative service, it seemed that not just Russian mothers but the whole country could at last breathe a sigh of relief. Young men of conscription age were finally to be given the choice of whether to take up arms or perform some peaceful task for the good of their country.

Suddenly, though, an apple of discord appeared in the bill's text, under Article 36, detailing "Transitional Provisions":

"In the period before 1st January 2000, up to 50 percent of citizens for whom it was decided to replace military service with alternative civil service may be sent to the armed forces of the Russian Federation and other military forces, formations and bodies to fulfill defense tasks in accordance with the federal law 'On Defense,' serving their alternative service as civilian personnel."

The essence of the amendment, introduced by Viktor Zorkoltsevy, chairman of the State Duma committee for public associations and religious organizations, is that a certain proportion of Russian citizens will, after all, be refused their constitutional right to genuine alternative civil service.

"How will the draft board determine who is or is not required to undergo military service?" quizzed Kirill Shuliko, a leader of the Anti-Militarist Party, in a debate held at the Andrei Sakharov Museum. "As before, this will mean bribing and paying off military doctors and members of the draft board to ensure yourself a place among the lucky ones who are sent for alternative service."

The contentious Article 36 is not merely a specific legal instance, but also a direct violation of the Russian Constitution, which stipulates that each citizen of the country has a right to alternative service if his religion or personal convictions prevent him from carrying out military service.

There is no mention in the constitution of any fifty-fifty division of eligible conscripts who apply for alternative service. Accordingly, four Duma deputies acted on a request by the Soldiers' Mothers Committee in demanding the modification of the article so that the words "may be sent" are followed by the words "on a voluntary basis." In this way potential conscripts would be spared the whims of the draft board, while the bill would not contradict either the constitution or the reasonable logic that alternative service would, in practice, not be much of an alternative.

Unfortunately, at hearings on the bill, these amendments were supported by just one deputy, Galina Starovoitova, and certainly not by any member of the Duma's defense committee.

"Why adopt such an anti-constitutional law," argued Susannna Tsaturyan, a member of the Soldiers' Mothers Committee whose son refused his call-up. "Better not to adopt any law, in that case. After all, it's only a year and a half until 1st January 2000, when President Yeltsin's 1996 decree on military reform comes into effect and the entire army switches to a fully professional basis."

However, another surprise lay in store for those becoming eligible for military service in the coming years. Last month, deputies received an answer to an inquiry they had addressed to then Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

In a response signed by then First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, the deputies were informed that: "The transition of the armed forces to a fully professional force is being planned according to the practical state of the economy, and in step with the creation of the structures for the service and life of contract soldiers. This program runs through 2005."

Why Yeltsin's decree is being sabotaged is not hard to figure out. Today there are neither the resources nor the will to implement military reform. Moreover, generals understand that, in contrast to contract soldiers, a conscript is a helpless creature without rights and privileges, someone who can be readily made a slave.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we can see for ourselves that -- to the majority of Russian politicians and military brass -- a human life seems much like a five kopek piece, negligible in value. To support this one can cite the claim of activists that each year more than 3,000 young men in the army die as a result of illness, violence or suicide.

Many experts feel that it will only be possible to alter attitudes toward the military if the terms of service are changed. Above all, the length of service must be cut. In most civilized countries where conscription continues, the term is considerably less than in Russia, where it lasts two years.

In 1993 the term was cut to 18 months. Then, suddenly, the general staff began to doubt the mental capabilities of Russian boys. It takes two years to properly learn how to defend the homeland, maintained its former commander, Mikhail Kolesnikov. But practice has shown that the first six months are enough for anyone to learn the rudiments of military service, while the real service occurs in the next six. Everything after that is a waste of both human and state resources. The "granddads," as they call those in the home stretch of their two-year stint, are of no benefit to the army -- but it is this contingent that is largely responsible for many problems like dedovshchina, or the brutal hazing of new recruits.

The fight over the right to alternative service goes on. But to save the continuing flow of conscripts from arbitrary and unprincipled politicians and the brutality of the dedy, it is essential that service length be reduced to one year: This should not be a major problem since the army is being cut back intensively as it is. If traditional means are ineffective in tackling the army's ills, untraditional ones must be given a chance.

Mumin Shakirov is a correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.