Young Russians fight the draft
One potential conscript won a round with the courts this week, but the loopholes are closing.
The Russian Army says Vassily Barzhenov is a draft dodger and a malingerer. Military officials have battled him in court for five years. Now, he is left with a criminal record and is no closer to his goal of serving his country by some means other than bearing arms.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"If only generals could read, perhaps all this wouldn't be happening," says the young apartment repairman.
He means Article 59 of the Russian Constitution, which guarantees any citizen the right to perform "alternative service" if conscription "goes against his convictions or religious faith."
At a time when the Russian military relies heavily on conscripts to fight in Chechnya, Mr. Barzhenov's case and others like it are important tests of the independence of Russia's judicial system and the integrity of constitutional law. It also comes at a time when tens of thousands are evading the draft, and the parliament is considering passage of a law that would effectively send conscientious objectors to labor camps.
Judges have repeatedly asked Barzhenov about his convictions, to which he has invariably replied that he is a pacifist. "I do not believe, deep in my heart, that problems should be solved by force," he says. "I cannot take upon myself the awesome responsibility of killing another human being. But I am genuinely ready to serve my country in any way equivalent to military service."
Every court has rejected his explanation, and several judges have told him that his request for alternative service is an excuse to avoid his patriotic duty.
Still, he admits, he's fortunate. About 500 young Russian men end up in prison every year for rashly mentioning their constitutional right to an alternative when called up for obligatory military service. Barzhenov's father, Alexander, has in effect worked as his full-time advocate since the first draft notice came in the autumn of 1995. Thanks to Alexander's indefatigable lobbying, wheedling, and filing of appeals, the young man's case has remained safely lost all these years amid the uncharted byways of Russia's red-tape jungle.
Standing before a grim-faced panel of judges in a Moscow courtroom on Monday, Barzhenov won another tiny reprieve. The judges agreed that a two-year prison sentence passed on him in 1997 should be cancelled since more than two years have since elapsed in legal wrangling.
"I'm very happy," Barzhenov says. "But it really just takes me back to Square 1. I'm sure a new draft notice will arrive for me any day, and I'll have to go through this whole cycle all over again."
An official at the Tushino regional draft board, where Barzhenov is listed, refuses to give his name or comment on the case. But he insists military recruiters "work only according to the law. If there is a problem, it is not with us but with the legislation."
The nub of the issue is that Russia's 1993 Constitution clearly defines the right to conscientious objector status, but successive parliaments have refused to pass an enabling law to create forms of alternative service.