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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Military Service Bill Draws Fire

Activists protested a draft bill on alternative military service Thursday, insisting that its harsh conditions for conscientious objectors hinder the institution of a professional army.

"Slavery is still slavery -- with or without weapons, and Russia already has its construction battalions," conscientious objector Vadim Gesse said at a press conference. "The only solution is a faster transition to a voluntary system of building up the armed forces."

Activists from the Liberal Union "Youth Solidarity" criticized the bill, which parliament will vote on next month, on the grounds that it discriminates against conscientious objectors by making alternative service last three years rather than the standard two, and by only allowing civil service to be performed in government organizations.

"No person with any common sense would chose to serve for three years in conditions that are just as bad as those under which they normally serve for two," said Roman Tkach, chairman of the union. "If there were a good law that would actually give people a reason to want to perform alternative military service, then a decent number of people would actually chose this option. Only then would the government have any incentive to professionalize the army."

One of President Boris Yeltsin's campaign promises was to end conscription and move to a professional army by the year 2000.

But despite inevitable wrangling over concrete provisions, most agree that a law on alternative service is necessary.

Article 59 of the Russian constitution guarantees the right to alternative service if a conscript's convictions, religious beliefs, or "other cases established by federal law" render military service impossible. At present, however, no such law exists under which conscripts can exercise this right, making the Constitutional guarantee meaningless.

While Russia signed an agreement when it joined the Council of Europe, requiring member states to offer alternative service to conscripts, judges in at least one case recently have ruled against conscientious objectors, saying that the absence of a law makes them eligible for criminal penalties if they refuse to serve.