Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 57

Despite nearly a decade of discussion, Russian lawmakers this week appear no closer to approving a piece of legislation–a law on alternative military service–which many believe is crucial to the health of both Russia’s armed forces and the country’s development as a democratic society. The alternative service legislation is important for a number of reasons, not least because it would at last bring Russian law into conformity with the country’s constitution, which permits draft age youth the option of choosing a civil alternative to military service. That point has been underlined by Russian human rights activists, who have long criticized the current system because it leaves young Russian men only two choices, neither of them desirable: either to be drafted into an army which has an atrocious record of caring for its inductees, or to avoid service altogether and risk prosecution as a draft evader. But the passage of alternative service legislation is important for the armed forces also, because it would constitute at least a first step toward regularizing and humanizing a military manpower system currently reviled in Russia for its capriciousness and callousness. And progress down that road could ultimately help to mitigate the army’s current difficulties in inducting draft age men, and make military service itself–rather than flight or alternative service–a more desirable choice for members of the Russian draft age population.

All indications are, however, that the same political opposition which has stymied the passage of alternative service legislation over the past decade will continue to do so in the months ahead. That, at least, is the conclusion drawn by many Russian observers following a March 16 State Duma discussion on two Russian draft alternative military service bills. Indeed, the very fact that there were two bills to examine says much about the chances for instituting alternative military service in Russia. This is because a second draft bill, which was drawn up by Defense Committee Chairman Andrei Nikolaev and submitted only days before the March 16 Duma session, is sharply at odds with an earlier bill prepared by Russian deputies under the direction of Yuli Rybakov of the Union of Right-Wing Forces. Russian reports suggested that Nikolaev’s bill was submitted at the behest of the Russian Defense Ministry in order to torpedo the Rybakov-backed legislation. The appearance of two competing bills (with another military-backed bill possibly to be introduced in the weeks to come) raises the likelihood that lawmakers will remain deadlocked over the alternative service legislation, and that yet another year could go by without the passage of an alternative service law.

The current battle over alternative service is striking because it reprises in part some of the fundamental military–and military manpower–issues Soviet leaders first had to confront in the late 1980s. It was at that time that reformers first questioned the notion of universal military service, claiming that in an overly militarized Soviet society the draft was pulling too many young men out of potentially useful civilian specializations and dumping them all into the armed forces. The reformers argued in particular that promising students in the science and engineering fields should be allowed to finish school and go into civilian professionals so as to better serve society. The battles of the late-1980s also focused on the so-called “extraterritorial” principle upon which the military draft system was then based. That principle, which generated increasingly strong resistance in the non-Russian republics, dictated that Soviet draftees would generally be sent to serve in regions far removed from their home republics.

A long string of political defeats suffered by the military leadership in the last days of the Soviet empire and the first days of the Russian Federation on precisely these issues led directly to the difficult conditions which currently obtain for the Russian armed forces with regard to manpower issues: that is, the granting of such wide-ranging deferments to draft age youth that barely two in ten is now legally subject to the draft, and the conduct of draft military service on a “territorial” principle which permits most draftees to serve near their homes. Moreover, the Defense Ministry’s problems in this area have been radically compounded by a collapse of living conditions within the armed forces which has further discredited the army while frightening away many of those who might still be subject to the draft. The result, if Defense Ministry leaders are to be believed, is continued and chronic understaffing of the armed forces, even as the size of the army has been downsized and the Defense Ministry has expended large amounts of funding on the recruitment of contract volunteers.

Against this background, it is perhaps not surprising that the Defense Ministry has moved to head off the alternative service bill–called, actually, the draft law “on alternative civil service”–whose drafting was organized by Rybakov and a reformist-minded retired Russian general, Eduard Voro’bev. The Rybakov bill is avowedly liberal in content, aiming to ensure that alternative service does not become either a form of “punishment” for those desiring to avoid military service, or a means by which the Defense Ministry is able to gather up virtual armies of “slave laborers” to work on various military projects. With such goals in mind, the Rybakov draft bill makes declaration of alternative service for draftees a simple affair, one which is free, for example, of the need to provide proof of religious or other convictions incompatible with regular military service. For most draftees it also specifies a three-year term of service, as against the two years draftees now serve, and is “territorially” based, that is, permits the draftees to serve in their home regions. The Rybakov bill also prohibits alternative service draftees from being used by the armed forces in any capacity, including in nonmilitary support roles or in military construction work. It specifies instead that alternative service draftees work in hospitals or hospices, or in any of a host of other civilian aid organizations. It also provides for putting the Ministry of Labor and Social Development–and not the Defense Ministry–in charge of the alternative service program.

The draft bill offered by Duma Defense Committee Chairman Andrei Nikolaev–another retired general, but one who appears to have built close ties with the military leadership–is, by contrast, draconian in nature. Russian reports were not entirely consistent in describing its contents, but it apparently stipulates a three- to four-year term of service for alternative service draftees and staffing conducted at least in part on the basis of the “extraterritoriality” principle (that is, the dispatch of draftees to sites around the country). The Nikolaev bill is reportedly also strict in compelling those seeking alternative status to provide proofs, including the testimony of witnesses, sufficient to demonstrate that they are unable to perform military service for reasons either of health, religious conviction, or family circumstances. It is not clear whether the Nikolaev draft would subordinate alternative service draftees to the Defense Ministry, but it is hard to believe that the military leadership will lightly give up the right to use these draftees either in military support roles or in military construction projects

Indeed, according to one especially damning Russian report, Nikolaev is serving as little more than a front for the Defense Ministry leadership in submitting his draft legislation on alternative service. According Novye Izvestia, the primary purpose of the Nikolaev bill is not to ensure passage of alternative service legislation, but to use the alternative service issue as a means to amend existing laws on military obligations and military service. The Nikolaev bill, the newspaper goes on, would not only make alternative service unpalatable for the vast majority of Russian youth, but would simultaneously cut back the number of draft deferments currently available to the draft age population. In short, the newspaper suggests that the Nikolaev bill is in fact designed to solve the Defense Ministry’s broader manpower problems. Novye Izvestia and other Russian sources also suggest that opposition of this sort to the Rybakov bill from the military leadership was obvious during the March 16 Duma hearings, and that it is likely to become even more pronounced by the time the Duma considers the issue again in April. And it is this hard line from the High Command–despite repeated assurances from senior military officials that they want to see passage of the legislation that many Russian sources believe will doom meaningful alternative service legislation for this year and the near future (AVN, March 12, 16; Vremya MN, March 12, 15; Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 14; Segodnya, March 15;, March 16; Novye Izvestia, Izvestia, March 17).

The military leadership’s response to Rybakov’s alternative service legislation appears doubly misguided when coupled with its simultaneous embrace of a US$6 million initiative the Kremlin launched this month aimed at instilling patriotism in Russia’s youth. The vaguely defined new program, which was drafted by the Defense and Education Ministries, will attempt to promote patriotic values through the use of museum exhibits, videotapes and commemorative events. And although not aimed strictly at resolving the military’s manpower problems, it is presumably intended by the Defense Ministry at least to make Russian youth more amenable to military service by imbuing them with pride in Russia’s past martial glories (Moscow Times, March 13; Washington Post, March 14; The Guardian, March 21). With respect to the problem of widespread military draft evasion, however, this approach would seem to share at least one important fault with the military leadership’s apparent effort to subvert honest discussion of alternative military service legislation: neither addresses the root conditions within the armed forces themselves which are one of the primary causes of draft resistance. These conditions include abysmal living conditions for draftees and the persistence of sometimes deadly violence in their barracks life. The military leadership has likewise also appeared resistant to the type of radical military downsizing that many believe is essential to the construction of a military establishment possessing the financial wherewithal to offer a decent living to its officers and soldiers. Against this background, there seems little likelihood that either the passage of draconian new alternative service draft laws or the implementation of a Soviet-style patriotic propaganda campaign will do anything significant to incline Russian youth more favorably toward military service or to begin resolving the army’s long-standing manpower problems.