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Military Conscription: The Issue of Choice in the Soviet Union

August 13, 1991|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — It would be hard to find an issue that better reveals the stark, deepening divide in this society than the attitude toward serving in the Soviet army.

Advocates of universal, compulsory military service have a full battery of reasons: Patriotic obligations toward the Motherland; revolutionary traditions; the social role fulfilled by an institution that brings young Tatars and Karelians together, maybe for the only time in their lives; the educational benefit of teaching young Uzbeks how to brush their teeth (a genuine example once used by a general to justify universal service), and forcing everyone in this ethnic crazy quilt of a country to learn at least some Russian.

Opponents of the status quo include nationalists from rebellious republics such as Lithuania or Georgia who refuse to recognize any obligation toward what they see as an "occupying" Soviet army. Then there are the liberal politicians and strategists who argue that the Soviet Union no longer needs or can afford to keep the world's largest standing army, especially in times of blooming "partnership" with the United States and near economic bust at home.

A Soviet government decree in 1989 cut back the length of compulsory service for soldiers and airmen from three years to two and for sailors from four years to three, and a feasibility study on reducing conscript service to 18 months was begun. University students were two years ago declared draft exempt until graduation. (Women are not drafted, but may volunteer for military service.) But how much further the trend will go is unclear.

Just last week, for example, a Soviet newspaper reported that the Defense Ministry will submit a draft law to parliament eliminating student deferments. A general was quoted as saying that the collective IQ of the armed forces had dropped to a "very low level."

Also, the top Soviet brass has long contended that having a huge mass of conscripts--the young men can be paid as little as $13 a month--is cheaper than paying higher salaries to attract and keep a smaller number of professionals. "Right now, the Soviet Union, with its economic situation, is not in a position to have such a volunteer army," the defense minister, Marshal Dmitri T. Yazov, said last year. Moreover, the military's construction battalions provide a source of dirt-cheap manpower that local and national officials are understandably reluctant to lose.

While conscription remains a fact of life in the Soviet Union, compliance evidently does not. The number of draft dodgers has grown 18-fold over the past three years, with 4,000 reported in the Moscow Military District alone, according to Defense Ministry figures. Col. Gen. Nikolai I. Shlyaga, the chief political officer in the armed forces, said in May: "The armed forces in matters of recruitment have found themselves on the verge of a real danger of their organizational disintegration."

One real disincentive to joining the ranks is that serving the Soviet Motherland remains a notoriously nasty and often dangerous experience. An independent fact-finding commission found that in the past 15 years, 120,000 Soviet servicemen died from peacetime accidents or brutal hazing--almost 10 times the number killed in action in Afghanistan.

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