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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bill Is a Potemkin Reform

Last week the State Duma passed in its second -- and most important -- reading a draft law to allow alternative community service as an option to the draft. Now it is almost certain that it will sail through parliament, be signed into law by President Vladimir Putin and come into force as of January 2004, and then conscientious objectors will legally be able to dodge military service.

But will they? The new law makes community service highly unattractive: A conscientious objector may have to serve up to 3 1/2 years somewhere in a far-off region of Russia that he will have no say in choosing, assigned a job that may not be to his liking (the assignment could be to do noncombat duties inside military units where a conscientious objector might face severe hazing).

Also, a conscientious objector is obliged by the law to officially notify the military authorities at least half a year before he turns 18 of his intention to choose the community service alternative. The military authorities will then have the right to decide whether to allow the applicant to do community service or not, depending on whether they think the draftee's pacifist convictions are real.

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It's clear that there will be no genuine community service alternative in this country under the new rules. The Defense Ministry will gather the statements of conscientious objectors and then decide how many applications to grant. Today the ministry calls up some 400,000 draftees per year (30 percent of all young men that turn 18 each year). From 2004 it simply plans to allow several hundred young men a year to do community service, and so it can say that the constitutional right to choose is being realized.

It is obvious that the alternative community service law is being passed largely to improve Russia's image abroad -- as additional proof of our serious intention to join the community of democratic nations. Russia already has a free media that is in fact not free at all; a private banking system that is no more than a cover for money-laundering activities; a stock exchange that does not reflect the real economy; free elections, the results of which are pre-determined by the Kremlin, and so on.

Potemkin reforms, Potemkin civil rights and Potemkin democracy were often used during Soviet times to fool foreigners. And often the West knowingly took these Potemkin decorations at face value, and today they will surely do the same. If Putin continues to maintain his present pro-Western foreign policy no one in the West will seriously scrutinize his domestic record. The new bill on community service is ample proof that no serious military reforms will happen anytime soon, but then that's an internal Russian problem, is it not?

Generals plan to keep a large conscript army and to continue the draft indefinitely. Of course, Putin has announced that the draft should end somewhere after 2010. But to make this happen, the military needs to undergo serious structural reforms.

The defense budget is today some $10 billion and will hardly exceed $20 billion in the next 10 to 20 years. With such a spending bill, Russia can maintain a more or less well-fed, well-armed and disciplined conventional armed force of no more than half a million men, taking into account the fact that we should also keep a significant nuclear deterrent. Today Russia's military has more than 2 million servicemen in active service and also some 700,000 civilian support personnel.

The per capita militarization of Russia today is in fact higher than that of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Russia inherited some 80 percent of the Soviet military machine and kept most of it, while inheriting only 50 percent of the Soviet Union's resources, population and natural wealth.

Over the past decade, the military machine has degraded as a result of inadequate financing, aging equipment, bad food and living conditions, a steady decline in discipline, morale and the professional standards of its commanding officers. The Russian military is the main supplier of munitions and military equipment to Chechen separatists. It was announced this week that terrorists purchased the MON-90 antipersonnel mine that killed and wounded hundreds on May 9, in Kaspiisk, Dagestan, from a Russian military unit.

Desertions, killings and the hazing of conscripts in Russian units have clearly been on the rise recently. A total breakdown of the military machine is becoming a genuine possibility, while the authorities seem to believe that the forced drafting of unwilling young men is the best cure.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.