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THE WORLD

An Unappealing Alternative to Russia's Draft

Military: A likely law will make the choice two years of service versus 3 1/2 of noncombat work.

June 22, 2002|ROBYN DIXON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — A bold experiment designed to reinforce a basic right in Russia's Constitution--to be a conscientious objector--is in tatters after the Russian parliament virtually assured passage of a bill that critics say buries any meaningful alternative to the draft.

Twenty-one young men in Nizhny Novgorod, about 250 miles east of Moscow, were guinea pigs in the experiment--doing civil service at a hospital for the last six months instead of military service.

But the military's general staff demanded Thursday that they be conscripted, as debate raged about the alternative-service bill, which passed its second reading in the lower house of parliament Wednesday. The measure must still pass a third reading, which is usually pro forma, before it can become law.

The bill mandates that those who do not want to serve two years in the army must spend 3 1/2 years doing an alternative form of civil service, such as hospital work or noncombat duties in the military.

The 21 volunteers quit Thursday after they were warned that the time they had served would not count against military service or alternative service.

Behind the argument over military service lies one of Russia's most contentious and difficult reform proposals: oft-repeated but never delivered plans to slim down the army and reduce its dependence on conscripts.

Under their constitution, Russians are entitled to an alternative to military service. But for years, conscientious objectors have faced jail terms.

Three and a half years of alternative service is like a sentence for a crime, said Viktor Gursky, who organized the Nizhny Novgorod project. In a phone interview Friday, he described the bill approved by the State Duma, or lower house, as the "last straw."

Some of the young men involved are religious. Others, like Yevgeny Nagornov, 26, call themselves pacifists.

"Since I was a teenager, I have always felt panic at the idea that I would be ground up by the state military juggernaut that turns everyone into a cogwheel and kills your individuality," Nagornov said.

"I wanted to be somebody, a person with a face, not just an inanimate cogwheel," he said in a phone interview, explaining why he took part in the experiment. One of Nagornov's friends was killed fighting Russia's war against separatist rebels in the republic of Chechnya several years ago.

Another volunteer, Yuri Khvalyov, 23, said in a phone interview that the bill was designed to scare people away from doing an alternative to military service.

"What our government is offering us is not alternative military service. It is punishment pure and simple. They are trying to punish us for being different," he said.

He described the Duma bill as "ridiculous and discriminatory."

One of the main advocates of alternative service is liberal politician Boris Y. Nemtsov, leader of the Union of Right Forces and a former governor of Nizhny Novgorod. He argued that the bill would impede changes in the military.

"The bill, which was passed under direct pressure from the general staff, runs counter to Russia's interests and those of civil society. It is reactionary, and it hampers military reform," he said Thursday.

From the beginning, the young men taking part in the experiment have been under pressure.

In February, a federal court ruled the project illegal, and prosecutors warned that the time the men had spent washing out bedpans and cleaning wards would not be counted against their military service. Some of them gave up and submitted to the draft.

"We thought that there could be some use from this alternative service of ours," Nagornov said. "We thought that other people would notice our experiment and follow suit."

Conscientious objection aside, there are many reasons why two years in the army is unattractive, not least of which is the conflict in Chechnya, which continues to claim the lives of service members.

Hazing is brutal. Conscripts are beaten and sometimes killed by fellow soldiers. The rate of suicide among conscripts is high, but activists like the Soldiers' Mothers Committee claim that many of the deaths counted as suicides are the result of hazing.

Conditions in the army are poor and food rations often inadequate. Even in Moscow, conscripts sometimes approach passersby to beg for money or cigarettes. Conscripts must work in the fields, growing and harvesting their food.

Khvalyov, a Seventh-day Adventist, said he abhors the idea of weapons and killing, even in war.

"The Russian armed forces are notorious for hazing practices that claim hundreds of innocent lives a year. If draftees who prefer to do the alternative service get sent to military units, the level of hazing will skyrocket. Soldiers will terrorize and hunt people like me," he said.

Instead of objecting to military service and facing court, many young men have dodged the draft or paid hefty bribes to military enlistment officers or doctors to avoid service.

Sons of wealthy Muscovites rarely serve. Most draftees are villagers from the provinces whose parents lack the means to buy their way out.

Nagornov said he felt himself marching to a different tune than the military.

"When they think of a real man, they think of a macho man with muscles of steel and a gun in his hands," he said.

"But if the entire squad is marching in step and only one soldier is out of step, maybe he is hearing different music."

*

Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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