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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yeltsin Waters Down Law on Draft

Liberal legislators Wednesday denounced a move by President Boris Yeltsin to water down an unpopular law extending the term of mandatory military service as both unconstitutional and inadequate, and reiterated their determination to contest the law in the Constitutional Court.

Yeltsin signed the law into effect Saturday, extending obligatory military service from 18 months to two years and ordering all college graduates to join the military immediately after graduation. But the president simultaneously issued a decree softening the law.

According to the decree, graduate students get a draft deferral until they finish their studies. College graduates who take on jobs in the state sector of the Russian economy will also get a respite until they decide to seek employment with a private firm.

"By this decree we will keep the young intelligentsia in the state sector of the economy and in the educational and scientific institutions," Yeltsin told Interfax after signing the decree.

But whatever its purpose, the decree was roundly condemned by liberals, who called it unconstitutional.

"I am happy for the graduates who got a reprieve, but this decree is unconstitutional because it violates the equality of all forms of property, state or private," said Viktor Sheinis, a member of the State Duma's Legislation Committee.

"This is like thinly disguised alternative service," said Nail Salikhovsky, a spokesman for the Soldiers' Mothers' Committee, which is credited with pressuring the government into exempting college students from draft in the last months of the Soviet Union. The exemption still stands.

"But if it is alternative service, they should call a spade a spade and establish a specific service term," Salikhovsky said, pointing out that a graduate unwilling to serve in the army will have to work in the state sector until the age of 27, after which he cannot be drafted under existing law.

The State Duma is now debating a bill on alternative service for pacifists and people whose religious convictions do not allow them to join the military. According to the bill, such people would be allowed to do low-paid, menial work for the state for three years instead of serving in the army.

Liberals said Yeltsin's decree in effect imposed an even tougher choice on college graduates.

"Who wants to work for the state?" questioned liberal State Duma member Lev Ponomaryov, who, along with several other deputies, plans to appeal to the Constitutional Court to void the law. Ponomaryov should know: even a parliament deputy's official salary is only slightly more than 1 million rubles ($200), and government ministers receive comparable salaries. A young graduate can easily make several times that much in a private company.

A group of several reformist parliament deputies will file its appeal to the country's highest legal authority, the Constitutional Court, as soon as their legal assistants make up a formal petition citing procedural violations which accompanied the lightening-quick passage of the bill through the Duma, Ponomaryov said. The chamber passed the bill after only 30 minutes of discussion without so much as reading the text.

In another break with accepted practice, the law is retroactive: soldiers called up last fall will have to serve for 2 years instead of 18 months.

"Such concessions to the military brass set a dangerous precedent," said Ponomaryov, adding that he and his colleagues were determined to fight it out in court.

Yeltsin and his advisers, however, believe that the decree on exemptions introduced a sufficient element of compromise into the situation. Yeltsin's national security aide, Yury Baturin, told Interfax that Yeltsin considered several appeals from leading academics asking him not to sign the law.

Baturin said that just a few days ago, Yeltsin was "disinclined to sign the law passed by the State Duma" after a number of leading educators, wrote to him in an open letter that the law would disrupt Russia's system of scientific training by tearing promising scientists away from their work.

But then, according to Baturin, Yeltsin read a letter from Yury Osipov, president of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who asked for exemptions for only 75 promising graduate students.

"The president saw in this letter a way to balance the interests of the army's combat readiness and the preservation of the scientific potential," Baturin said. According to the presidential aide, Yeltsin opted for a broader compromise than Osipov's letter envisaged, and top military commanders agreed that it was possible to soften the law without hurting the army.

"Who knows what Yeltsin and [Defense Minister Pavel] Grachev really decided," Salikhovsky commented. "Yeltsin's words have a tendency to differ from his actions, and whatever happens, we will fight every specific case in court."