Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 78

Some nine years after Russians first began debating the question of alternative military service, the country’s State Duma last week approved on first reading a contentious, government-backed bill that sets out the conditions under which Russian draft age youth will be able to choose civil over military service. But though human rights and various liberal groups in Russia have been among those pushing hardest for passage of alternative service legislation, they were doing little celebrating after last week’s Duma vote. That is because they believe the approved government draft is based too heavily on Defense Ministry proposals that seek to make alternative service not a viable choice for young draftees, but a form of punishment for those whom the military leadership believes are simply intent upon avoiding military service.

The widespread disenchantment with the bill passed last week suggests that the battle to turn it into law will likely be a difficult one, and that–even if it is successful–the result will be legislation that fails to solve one of the key problems that it is meant to address: widespread draft avoidance and equally broad disgruntlement with the institution of conscript military service in Russia. In that sense, the debate over alternative military service is central to the bigger battle now being waged over the future of the Russian armed forces, and is part of a complex of problems–one highlighted in President Vladimir Putin’s recent State of the Nation speech (see the Monitor, April 19)–upon whose resolution the Kremlin’s military reform program and the health of the army depends.

The closeness of the April 17 Duma vote on alternative military service is testament to the political divisions that continue to surround the issue. The government-backed bill was passed 251-158, just twenty-five votes over the minimum needed for approval. On the same day lawmakers also debated and voted on two other draft bills dealing with alternative military service, each of which was offered by members of the Union of Right-Wing Forces (SPS) and each of which was defeated. The government bill approved on April 17 must still be passed on second and third readings by the Duma, and must then be submitted for approval to the Federation Council and the Russian president. Those committed to more radical visions of military reform in Russia will likely fight to amend the government bill, suggesting that the battle over alternative military service is far from over.

The Kremlin had hoped to avoid a fight of this sort. In February of this year representatives of the legislature, the government and the military leadership produced a hard-fought compromise that became the bill passed last week and that Kremlin officials afterward tried to present as satisfactory to all parties concerned. The decision by the SPS to offer competing draft bills appeared to upset Kremlin plans, however, and has been denounced from that quarter as an exercise in political grandstanding. The SPS and other proponents of a strong alternative military service bill, however, appear to have acted out of a belief that the government bill incorporates too many ideas pushed by the Defense Ministry in an earlier draft bill of its own.

Differences between the Defense Ministry and the Duma-based reformers have centered on three issue areas. The first, and probably most important, is the term of service that alternative military service is to entail. The military has argued for a four-year term (with two years for graduates of higher educational establishments), which is twice the amount of time that regular Russian draftees must serve and lengthier than international norms. Reformers have called for three years or less of civil service. The government bill approved on April 17 follows the Defense Ministry recommendation on this point.

Another key disagreement involved the procedures by which those seeking alternative military service would have to prove their conscientious objector status. Reformers wanted to make the process a simple one, with some using foreign practices to argue that a simple declaration should be sufficient. The Defense Ministry took a far harder line, one that would obligate the draftee to prove his pacifist beliefs before a government commission that might ultimately reject his application. Here again, the government draft followed closely the Defense Ministry recommendation.

Finally, there have also been disagreements over the so-called “extraterritoriality principle,” which refers to the government’s right to send a draftee (or, in this case, a conscientious objector) to serve far from his home, and over the sorts of institutions at which objectors might perform their service. The reformers generally wanted objectors to be allowed to serve in their own communities at such civilian facilities as hospitals. The military, on the other hand, wanted to retain the extraterritorial principle and to have objectors serve at military facilities. The government draft approved on April 17 appears to compromise on these competing recommendations.

According to Yuly Rybakov, a leading reformer and a participant in the drafting of one of the liberal alternative service bills, “The governmental version is a generals’ one: Its essence is to deprive citizens of any desire for alternative service.” That statement goes to the heart of the reformers’ criticism of the government draft. They argue that the military leadership is deliberately seeking to make alternative military service punitive and the conditions upon which it is based so onerous as to discourage young men from choosing that option.

But aside from the fact that alternative service is a constitutional right in Russia–one that has not yet been widely realized because enabling legislation is lacking–the reformers also argue that the military is in a sense shooting itself in the foot by pushing for such a harsh alternative service regime. At present many draft-age Russian youth are reluctant to serve in the military because of abysmal living conditions, pervasive barracks violence and the war in Chechnya. The absence of a workable conscientious objector regime leaves them no option but to avoid service illegally, however, a necessity that further fans the flames of resentment against the armed forces not only among the draft age population but across other broad sections of Russian society as well.

The Defense Ministry’s hard line on this issue appears to be grounded in the belief of senior commanders that the creation of a moderately conceived alternative service regime will serve as one more assault on a conscription system that is already failing to provide the army with the human resources it claims to need. By most accounts, the real problem here is the military leadership’s continued failure to provide for the health and well being of its conscript force. In addition, however, the military loses somewhere between 70 and close to 90 percent (depending on whose figures you believe) of the draft cohort because of deferments written into Russian law. Against this background, reformers argue that the number of those seeking conscientious objector status under a reasonable alternative service regime is likely to be far lower than the Defense Ministry’s sometimes-apocalyptic projections.

But what the military leadership appears to find most objectionable about the push for alternative military service is its connection to calls for a broader restructuring of the armed forces. Some reformers make no secret, for example, of their belief that alternative military service is but one element in a broader reform plan under which the army would be cut radically in size and transformed expeditiously into an all-professional force. This vision does not appear to be so far from the one that the Kremlin has at times articulated, but the military leadership fiercely opposes it and appears, on the issue of alternative service at least, to have the Kremlin’s backing.

There have also been concerns among military leaders–and probably within the Kremlin as well–regarding recent moves by about fifteen Russian municipalities to institute “experimental” versions of alternative military service on their own. The city getting the most attention in this regard is Nizhny Novgorod, where about two dozen young men are currently serving three-year terms as orderlies at a city hospital in lieu of military service. In February a regional court annulled the decree issued by Nizhny Novgorod’s mayor permitting the experiment. The young men involved are expected soon to get draft notices. In a comment to the press last week, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov denounced developments in Nizhny Novgorod, saying passage of the government’s alternative service bill would soon end such “pseudo-experiments.” Amid continued reports of barracks abuses and mindful that stands like the one taken by the mayor of Nizhny Novgorod could prove politically popular, the Defense Ministry probably fears that other local and regional leaders could begin taking their own potshots at the military draft system (Moscow Times, January 23, April 18; RFE/RL, February 26; AP, April 17;, April 16-17; Vremya Novostei, April 18).