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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ivanov Reverses on Student Call-Up

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov on Wednesday backtracked on a controversial plan to dramatically reduce the number of exemptions from military service. The move appeared to be a tactical retreat to avoid adding fuel to the fire of popular protests over the cancellation of benefits.

Ivanov told the State Duma that he has no plans to call for the conscription of students, who constitute the largest of many groups eligible for exemptions.

For now, "no one intends to pressgang students into the Army," Ivanov said. But Ivanov said that his ministry could look again at cutting exemptions in late 2005 or early 2006, as the deadline nears for reducing the term for compulsory military service. The term will be cut from two years to one year in 2008 as part of a move toward semiprofessional armed forces.

Valentina Melnikova, chairwoman of the United People's Party of Soldiers' Mothers, said she suspected Ivanov's statement was a ploy to deflect attention from his unpopular plan until the current nationwide protests over the cancellation of Soviet-era benefits die down.

"He abandoned the plan now to prevent those who could be affected by his proposal joining up with the pensioners' protests," Melnikova said, adding her party would press ahead with plans for a referendum on the cut in exemptions.

Ivanov told a Cabinet meeting last month that the number of groups eligible for exemptions from service is unacceptably high and must be slashed.

"We had all sorts of talented balalaika players and dancers who enjoy exemptions from the Army," Russian media quoted Ivanov as saying. "Since there is the draft, all must serve."

Only young men with health problems should be exempt from military service, Ivanov said.

Russia's law on military service requires all men aged between 18 and 27 to serve in the armed forces. Currently, exemptions exist for about 20 groups, including students, employees of defense plants and law enforcement officers, as well as men with certain health problems or those who have disabled parents, wives or small children.

Though Ivanov made his comments on the eve of the New Year's holidays, they did not go unnoticed, creating uproar in Russia's artistic community.

"We have been very concerned by the minister's words, which are evidence of incompetence," said Vladimir Pushkaryov, professor with the Russian Academy of Music and an acclaimed trumpet player.

Pushkaryov said that if young musicians were drafted into the Army instead of going to a conservatory, the country's musical talent would dry up, as few budding musicians would be able to pursue their careers after interrupting their training for military service.

Pushkaryov said he was worried that his most promising student, Sasha Vetukh, a winner of six international and domestic musical contests who turns 18 in August, could be called up under Ivanov's call-up plan.

Last fall, the military called up 176,000 young men, but 31,000 avoided the draft due to various exemptions, according to the Defense Ministry. The ministry, with about 1 million men under arms, is the country's largest armed forces agency.