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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Torn Duma Passes Alternative Service

The State Duma narrowly approved on first reading Wednesday the government's bill on alternative military service that allows young people of draft age to carry out civil service if they put in twice as much time as in the army and can prove they are pacifists at heart.

The bill was passed with a vote of 251-158, just 25 votes above the minimum required for approval. Lawmakers earlier debated and rejected two other versions.

The Communists, their allies the Agro-Industrial group and two liberal factions, Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces (SPS), voted against the government-backed bill.

The bill, which was thrashed out by the military and Duma deputies, calls for two years of alternative service for conscripts with a university degree and four years for those without. The bill also envisages that a draftee will be required to prove his pacifist beliefs in order to qualify for the civil service, while a draft commission can reject his application if it finds his argument unconvincing.

The legislation, which must be approved in three readings and then by the Federation Council and the president, will remove a discrepancy between the Constitution and the practice of compulsory military service. The 1993 Constitution grants draftees the right to seek alternative service if they cannot perform army service for religious or ethical reasons.

The Communists, who earlier this month lost much of their influence in the Duma when they were stripped of major committee posts, fought to get the vote taken off the agenda Wednesday morning. They argued that Russia was not ready for alternative service and that it would only further destroy an army plagued by hazing and draft-dodging.

Liberal lawmakers criticized the government's bill as a draconian measure designed to punish those seeking alternative service.

"Its main essence is to remove any desire for alternative service," Liberal Russia Deputy Yuly Rybakov said, presenting a bill he had drafted together with deputies from SPS and Russia's Regions.

Under that version, draftees would not have to prove their beliefs and would serve 1 1/2 years if they had university degrees and three years without them.

Supporters of the government's bill said controversial provisions such as the length of the service could be amended ahead of the second reading, the date for which remains to be decided.

The third of the drafts rejected by the deputies was the most radical. The bill, proposed by SPS Deputy Vladimir Semyonov, called for an abolishment of the draft and a switch to a professional army. He said the other versions allowed deputies "to deceive themselves, prolonging the agony of the draft system."

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who was attending military exercises in Nizhny Novgorod on Wednesday, called for a speedy passage of the government's bill. He said it would end "pseudo-experiments" in alternative service, a reference to an experiment in Nizhny Novgorod in which 29 young men are performing alternative service in the city's hospital.

Nizhny Novgorod's mayor signed a decree allowing the experiment last year, but the regional court annulled the decision in February. The 29 men are expected to receive draft notices shortly. The draftees say they will fight for their constitutional right in court.