Publication: Prism Volume: 8 Issue: 2

By Mikhail Zherebyatev

Previous attempts to introduce the concept of community service as an alternative to military service were beset by failure, in both the Soviet Union and Russia. The first bill was drafted by the Supreme Soviet of the USSR back in early 1990, in response to demands by democratic forces to establish civilian control over the armed forces. According to one of the authors of that bill, Anatoly Pchelintsev–then a military lawyer, now director of the human rights organization “The Institute of Religion and Law”–a law on alternative service could have been passed back in Soviet days. It was due to have been debated during the autumn 1991 session of the Supreme Soviet, which was destined to be the last in the history of the Soviet parliament. However, in the opinion of another human rights activist, Lev Levinson–a member of the expert council acting under the auspices of Russia’s ombudsman–the Soviet law may well have proved to be unworkable, because a further document was required before it could be implemented: A governmental decree stipulating the mechanisms and methods by which citizens could exercise their legal right to alternative community service. This document was supposed to be produced by the executive bodies of a different state–Russia. However, during the first few post-Soviet years, the problem arose of how to dovetail old Soviet legislation with new Russian legislation–a problem that Levinson says was not always negotiated smoothly.

The lawmaking potential of the Russian Supreme Soviet in 1992 and 1993 was very limited, both because of the specific way in which legislative power was structured (the Supreme Soviet drafted the laws, but they were passed by a superior representative body–the Congress of People’s Deputies), and because of the long political stand-off between parliament and president. Moreover, President Yeltsin simply rejected many laws adopted during this period. The Constitution of the Russian Federation that came into force after the referendum of 1993 enshrined the right to alternative community service (AGS) on religious and pacifist grounds. After 1993 the State Duma made several attempts to draft a law on AGS. As early as 1994 there was a successful first reading of a draft that was fairly liberal in its central principles: One could refuse to serve simply on the basis of a declaration; AGS was to be performed in the draftee’s home region and only in social institutions; and the period of service was to be one-and-a-half times as long again as military service. However, this first Duma was unable to follow the bill through, because it was elected for only two years. In the next Duma, there was a strong contingent of conservative military men, who swept into the legislature on a wave of patriotic rhetoric during the first Chechen campaign of 1994-96. Therefore, in 1998, when the law on AGS was given its second reading, it was rejected.

The constitution is a law of direct force. This means that in the absence of a specific law, a young man called up for military service can back up his right to AGS with a court ruling. From a legal perspective, this is a highly paradoxical situation: Because there is no legislation outlining the mechanism for performing AGS, it is possible to cite the constitution, obtain a court ruling, and avoid serving in the army altogether. However, in practice even those who have such a ruling in their possession keep on receiving papers telling them to report to the enlistment office during each new draft. In theory the draft takes place twice a year–in spring and fall–but in practice the call-up goes on all year round (this was initiated in the 1970s). The situation is much worse for those citizens who do not have the appropriate court ruling to hand. In various courts in 2001 a member of the “St. Petersburg” international group of attorneys, Artur Leontev, successfully upheld the case of Vyacheslav Mitrokhin, a Jehovah’s Witness who was forcibly drafted to a military unit where he was held for fifteen months. Human rights organizations constantly receive similar reports.

Until very recently, army leaders have not seen the absence of a law on AGS as a major problem, though just recently, with the long drawn-out second Chechen campaign, which increases the risk of draftees seeing live action, and also with the new opportunities for lawfully avoiding the army, the number of people available for call-up has shrunk considerably. Today, of every ten 18-year-old Russians who could be called up, only one actually sees military service. As a result, many units do not have enough draftees. Nine out of ten potential conscripts are either granted a deferment as students (in recent years this category has increased because of the growth in the number of students paying for higher education), or do not serve for medical reasons, or find some other way of avoiding military service.

In early 2002 four versions of a bill on alternative community service were presented to the State Duma. Three of these were prepared by groups of lawmakers or individual lawmakers. The most democratic version was presented by the Union of Right Forces deputy Vladimir Semenov. This draft is essentially a reworking of the bill passed in the first reading by the Duma in 1994 and subsequently rejected in a later reading. A second draft, drawn up by a group led by Andrei Nikolaev, is quite close to the version developed by the General Staff. The third member’s bill, drafted under the supervision of Eduard Vorobev, was originally drawn up with the intention of finding a compromise with the military, which had rejected many democratic rights and norms.

The surprise was that the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation decided to join in the effort to draft a bill on AGS. The General Staff adopted an extremely tough stance on the issue of implementing citizens’ right to alternative community service. The General Staff proposal envisages that AGS be performed solely in ancillary civilian jobs in military units, with the “alternatives” being compulsorily accommodated in barracks, and that these draftees be used either in military construction divisions, in units of the ministry for emergency situations, in individual ancillary forces (such as the railway forces), or in military units involved in the liquidation of weapons of mass destruction. Experts from the General Staff envisage that AGS should last twice as long as ordinary military service in the land-forces–that is, four years as opposed to two. At the same time, those at the General Staff who drafted this bill believe that those taking alternative community service should be forbidden to study for a higher education during their period of service, be it by distance-learning or in evening classes. Moreover, it is proposed that those applying for AGS should have to prove their religious or pacifist convictions to the enlistment commission. This draft bill rules out the possibility of performing AGS in one’s home town.

Experts from the voluntary organization “For democratic alternative community service” believe that the General Staff proposal was drawn up within the army structures directly responsible for implementing the draft. Therefore, the human rights activists point out, it was created by the very people who have a vested interest in ensuring that as large a number of draftees as possible are sent off on military service. It should be mentioned that human rights activists often criticize army leaders for the fact that conscripts in ordinary military divisions–not construction divisions–are engaged in activities which really have nothing to do with them. This has even given rise in recent years to a popular definition of military service: “Building dachas for the generals/colonels”. In other words, the draft army is a source of free labor that is regularly topped up.

In view of the fact that President Vladimir Putin has adopted a policy of finding legal solutions to problems that conform to international legal standards (because only this will open the door for Russia’s entry into Europe-wide structures) on the one hand, and given the plethora of diametrically opposed approaches to the question of solving the AGS problem on the other hand, the Russian government took it upon itself to reconcile the existing draft bills on AGS. It was highly significant that the government entrusted the task of drafting a compromise, composite version of the bill to Labor Minister Aleksandr Pochinok, rather than Vice Premier Valentina Matvienko, who controls the social ministerial bloc in the government (one type of activity for the “alternatives” is of course social work), or Ilya Klebanov, who represents the interests of the military departments and the military-industrial complex as a whole in the upper echelons of power. By giving the labor ministry control of AGS, the government has taken responsibility for it away from army bosses.

At the same time, giving the job of drafting the bill to the labor ministry means that the government is genuinely prepared to compromise with the military. The thing is that experiments with alternative community service organized by the authorities in Perm and Nizhny Novgorod have involved conscripts working exclusively in hospitals and care homes. Incidentally, it is significant that the AGS experiment is geared towards draftees carrying out socially important work. Small groups of pacifist draftees are working as orderlies in old people’s homes and hospitals in Perm and Nizhny Novgorod. It is also notable that this experiment is taking place in those very cities which since 2000 have been part of the Volga federal okrug, whose boss, appointed by Vladimir Putin, is Sergei Kirienko, who was briefly prime minister of Russia under Boris Yeltsin. Kirienko has gained a reputation as a committed advocate of liberal reforms in politics and the economy. (The seven federal okrugs were created by Moscow to ensure more effective control for the Kremlin over regional leaders.) The resulting compromise in the government’s version of the bill attests to concessions from both sides.

However, the tough demands laid out in the general staff draft provided great opportunities for the military in negotiating the final version. This is how the government bill looks in general terms: People can be sent to perform alternative community service on the basis of both declaration and proof: The onus is on the draftee to prove his beliefs. Possible activities include both social community work, and serving in ancillary roles in military units, in construction divisions and in structures of the ministry for emergency situations. The bill grants the draftee the right to select the type of activity for his alternative service. This is probably the most important provision incorporated into the draft bill presented by Aleksandr Pochinok to Russia’s parliament on February 14. In a slightly earlier version of the government bill this question was left unresolved, meaning that there was practically no value to the community service: The fate of the “alternatives” was in the hands of the registration and enlistment office. Apart from anything else, this approach raised the level of corruptibility of the military department in charge of the draft. What would happen was that some would do their AGS at home, while others faced being sent to military units in different regions: They would be sent to wherever the demand for people arose. On the subject of the potential for corruption opened up by the bill when there was no solution to the point about choice of type of service, another factor should be mentioned. Under the influence of functionaries of the Russian Orthodox Church, who never tire of asserting that their church is poor, because unlike other faiths it supposedly does not receive financial aid from abroad, among Russian public servants (and military officials are no exception), there is now a widely-held and, more importantly, persistent impression that Protestants in Russia–who make up a very significant proportion of the “alternatives”–are being supported materially by their western fellow-believers.

The government draft bill sets the length of service at twice that of service in the land-forces for those who undertake social community service and one-and-a-half times for military ancillary service. Of the democrats’ demands, the government’s compromise bill has retained a ban on those who choose alternative ancillary service being accommodated in the barracks with conscript soldiers, and upholds the right of “alternatives” to study at evening classes and by distance learning (for both secondary and higher educational qualifications) during their period of AGS, and their right to be paid for their work, with guaranteed holidays and days off.

Mikhail Zherebyatev is a specialist with the International Institute for Humanitarian and Political Research in Moscow.