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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Weighing the Alternatives

After years of delays, the State Duma began discussing legislation Wednesday on alternative service, which, in accordance with the Constitution, will permit young people of draft age to choose a civil alternative to military service.

But will the bill become law any time soon?

Liberal Duma Deputy Vladimir Lysenko, a co-sponsor of one of the bills on alternative service presented for discussion in the Duma, is worried that further postponements may drag the legislative process well into the fall of 2002. "It may turn out that civil service will not be available either in 2002 or in spring 2003," he said.

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But Yevgeny Gontmakher, a high-ranking official in charge of drafting the government's bill on alternative service, believes Lysenko's worries are groundless. The government's bill states that alternative service will become law only from January 2004, so the Duma can spend its time discussing legislation for more than a year at least, he said.

Maxim Topilin, the deputy labor and social development minister who will be in charge of organizing alternative civil service if the Duma adopts the government bill, warned a gathering of pacifist activists and liberal Duma deputies last week that "serious amendments in the government's draft will not tolerated. If you press on, the law will not be passed and there will be no alternative service at all."

Lysenko agrees that only the government draft has any chance of becoming law. The government refused to provide an official financial assessment of the more liberal drafts, which -- according to rules on parliamentary procedure -- means that these drafts cannot be voted into law.

But Lysenko and other liberals still hope to seriously amend the government-backed draft, which obliges conscripts to "prove" their pacifist convictions in order to be granted alternative service. The bill also has the provision that civil service will last twice as long as compulsory military service. Today, that would mean four years.

Lysenko has been told by the Kremlin that President Vladimir Putin will announce in his state of the nation address Thursday a cut in compulsory military service from two years to 18 months. If this happens, civil service will also be automatically reduced to three years, making it a bit more attractive.

What government officials and liberal deputies agree on is that the number of draftees choosing civil service will not be large -- hundreds, or at most a couple of thousand, out of the approximately 400,000 draftees called up each year.

Gontmakher told me that government-sponsored polls say up to 30 percent of young men -- mostly from villages and small towns -- want to do military service despite the widespread hazing of solders. ("One year they beat us, the next year we in turn beat the new draftees," conscripts say, according to Gontmakher.)

At present, some 30 percent of 18-year-olds (most of them willing) are drafted each year into military service, while the rest get a reprieve on medical or other grounds, such as going to university, Gontmakher said. (The Defense Ministry constantly stresses that they call in only 11 percent of available conscripts. But these statements are based on creative accounting: All those who get a legal reprieve from service are added up and still count as "avoiding the draft" year after year until they turn 27.)

Gontmakher told me he personally orchestrated a revolt by ministers in January, when the government ordered a redrafting of a Defense Ministry bill on civil service that was even more severe than the one that is now in the Duma. Gontmakher tried to explain to the generals that it is not practical to impose excess punishment on those who volunteer to do civil service as there will not be many of them anyway. But some Duma deputies, supported by the Defense Ministry, are still proposing to amend the bill so that people who opt for civil service will be forbidden to run for president, be Duma deputies or serve in police departments, as well as other penalties.

Pacifists believe that Russia's true enemy is poverty and social neglect and that an army of young civil workers should combat this. They say alternative service should be tailored to attract as many volunteers as possible. But most army generals and their political supporters in the Duma believe the main threat to Russia is the West and that nothing can be allowed to stand in the way of mass conscription.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.