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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Battle on for Alternative Service

Itar-TassVsevolod Kurepin fulfilling his alternative service at a Nizhny Novgorod hospital.
A battle over alternative military service is shaping up, as the State Duma prepares to vote this spring on legislation that would at last define how young men could exercise their constitutional right to serve their country without taking up arms.

Human rights activists said Tuesday they have appealed to Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov not to back the version proposed by the Defense Ministry, which they said was too harsh.

"The ultimate concept of the law will determine whether alternative civilian service will be viewed only as a means of frightening conscripts with unbearable hardships or ... will truly help the state in solving significant social problems," said their letter to Kasyanov, written at a congress of about 200 nongovernmental organizations last weekend and sent Sunday.

They urged the prime minister to support legislation that would make alternative service beneficial for the public rather than a punishment for foregoing regular service. For example, young men could serve in hospitals, help the elderly or repair deteriorating housing.

But as the rights advocates from Memorial and Soldiers' Mothers spoke to reporters about their vision of a benign approach to alternative service, the government commission in charge of reviewing draft legislation gave its preliminary support to the Defense Ministry proposal on Tuesday, a government spokesman said.

The commission will make its recommendation to the Cabinet as early as this week, spokesman Alexei Gorshkov said by telephone Tuesday.

Three more bills have been drafted by State Duma deputies, and an aide to one of the authors, Deputy Vladimir Semyonov, said the Duma is expected to consider the various bills in March or April.

The aide said there are two main distinctions between the deputies' bills and the legislation proposed by the military. The first is that the Defense Ministry wants to make alternative service last four years, twice as long as regular service. The second is that the ministry would like to see those categories of young men who are now exempt from conscription be obliged to do alternative service.

The deputies' bills provide for alternative service of 2 1/2 to three years, the aide said.

While the 1993 Constitution guaranteed the right to alternative service -- to those whose beliefs prohibit them from serving or other groups "established by federal law" -- there is no legislation clearly outlining the implementation of the idea.

Valentina Melnikova, head of the Union of Soldiers' Mothers Committees, said she feared that if conscripts did alternative service as proposed by the Defense Ministry, they would be used essentially as forced labor and their rights would not be protected. The Labor Code does not cover people doing alternative service, she said.

Despite the legal limbo, a number of young men who have insisted on alternative service have won cases in court -- between 30 and 50 a year, according to Melnikova.

Additionally, about 15 cities in as many regions have introduced "experimental" alternative service, said Sergei Krivenko, head of Memorial's Sostradaniye center, which helps the elderly.

One of the most successful experiments began this year in Nizhny Novgorod, he said, where the city's mayor and enlistment commission signed contracts with 20 young men who agreed to work for three years as orderlies in a city hospital instead of serving in the military.

Last Wednesday, a Nizhny Novgorod court supported the project and, although the local prosecutors may appeal to a higher court, the new recruits seem happy with their work.

"Alternative service has begun and we are the pioneers," RTR television quoted one of the young men, Vsevolod Kurepin, as saying.