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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Soldiers' Mothers Form a Party

MTMelnikova speaking at the congress of the United People's Party of Soldiers' Mothers.
After 15 years of assisting conscripts who suffer from hazing or wish to avoid compulsory military service, the respected Union of Soldiers' Mothers Committees is going into politics with the creation last weekend of the United People's Party of Soldiers' Mothers.

A total of 164 committee activists from 50 regions gathered on a boat at Moscow's Northern Port for a two-day founding congress Saturday and Sunday to lay out their main goals of abolishing the Soviet-era compulsory draft system and of participating in the next State Duma elections, in 2007.

"We do not consider ourselves an opposition force. We do not have any opponents among politicians, but we do have certain demands for the executive power," said Valentina Melnikova, who was elected chairwoman of the new party Sunday and heads the Union of Soldiers' Mothers Committees.

Melnikova said that although her party leans toward liberal values, it is willing to cooperate with any political party to achieve its goals.

The liberal Yabloko party said Monday that it is ready to work with the United People's Party of Soldiers' Mothers. "We are in complete sympathy with them," Yabloko deputy leader Sergei Mitrokhin said by telephone.

Other parties made no public comment, but Melnikova said she is in frequent contact with Boris Nemtsov, a founder of the liberal Union of Right Forces party, which worked closely with the Soldiers' Mothers Committees on military issues in the last Duma.

The Union of Soldiers' Mothers Committees was founded in 1989 to combat hazing and other human rights violations in the military. It has for years helped parents keep their sons out of the military, often by showing them how to cite medical problems as reasons not to serve.

The group, which has committees in 53 regions, has come under fierce fire from military officials, who accuse activists of interfering in internal problems. Last year, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov accused the group of standing in the way of military justice, saying soldiers should take complaints to their superiors and not go on "marathon" treks in search of support.

A Duma deputy from the nationalist Rodina party, Viktor Alksnis, accused the group late last month of being "a foreign agent" seeking to undermine the defense capability of the military and called for a federal investigation. "They are fulfilling political orders from Western countries," Alksnis said at the time.

The organization denies the allegations.

Melnikova acknowledged Sunday that the new party may encounter bureaucratic problems when it tries to register with the Justice Ministry.

"We understand that any kind of odd thing might happen with our Justice Ministry," she said.

"The priority for now is to boost the number of party members," Melnikova said, adding that regional committee members are usually well respected in their localities and have the authority to run for regional and federal legislative seats.

She could not say how many members the party has now. Some 3,000 activists currently work as unpaid volunteers in the 53 committees across the country.

The Duma is expected to consider in the first reading this month a bill raising the number of members that each political party must have from 10,000 to 50,000. The bill also requires a party to have offices in at least half of the country's 89 regions.

The new party does not have any financial backers yet and has appealed to several oligarchs for support, Melnikova said.

"Realistically, there will not be any support until it becomes clear what will happen to Khodorkovsky," she said, referring to jailed Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has been charged with fraud and tax evasion in a case widely believed to be linked to his political and business ambitions. Khodorkovsky had funded Yabloko, the Union of Right Forces and the Communist Party.

Melnikova stressed last month that her party would not accept any money from foreign donors.

Regional committees have received grants from the European Union, the philanthropist George Soros and businessman Boris Berezovsky.

The Union of Soldiers' Mothers Committees has won several international awards, including the Right Livelihood Award, known as the Alternative Nobel.

Some delegates at the weekend party congress voiced concern that the political work might distract activists from their main mission of advocating servicemen's rights.

"I will support this party if they are as persistent and consistent as the committee is in its work now," said Valeria Mamkhogova, an activist in the southern republics of Karachayevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria.

But others were eager to get to work.

"No other existing party will promote laws protecting young people from incidents like the one that took the life of my son," said Alesya Oyun, 44, who last saw her son Mergen, 19, when he was drafted into the Army three years ago.

Oyun, who heads the Tuva committee in eastern Siberia, believes her son died in a hazing in Krasnoyarsk, where his regiment was stationed and he simply disappeared. She said the military has yet to offer any explanation for his disappearance.

Melnikova said that the group's regional committees will continue to operate as they do now.

"We are helping hundreds of thousands of people across the country. If we stop, no one else will do this for us," she said.

The fact that the new party's name echoes the names of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party and the populist People's Party is a mere coincidence, Melnikova said.

"It's not our fault that good words such as 'United' and 'People's' have been usurped by United Russia and the People's Party. This does not mean that we cannot use them as well," she said.

"We are quite united in our efforts to grow a healthy future generation, and we are indeed a people's party formed from below," she said.