Forced conscription roils Russians

President Putin promises to phase out the draft by 2007, but heavy-handed recruitment tactics persist.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Olga and Grigory Ossovsky lost one son in military service and have struggled long and hard to keep their second boy out of the Army. They blame Russia's system of universal male conscription for devastating their family and say it's time Kremlin leaders made good on pledges to create an all-volunteer armed force.

American politicians thinking about reinstating the draft to boost military manpower might take a cautionary look at Russia, where it has never ceased to be a painful and divisive issue. Though leaders here have been promising for a decade to build a US-style professional Army, the 1.2-million strong Russian armed forces still induct up to half a million young men annually for compulsory two-year service, many of them unwilling.

For some people, like the Ossovskys, conscrip-tion - even in peacetime - is evidence that the Russian state remains fundamentally unreformed despite the long-ago demise of the Soviet Union.

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"Our leaders do not care about keeping their promises, and they are indifferent to public opinion," says Mr. Ossovsky, a theatrical producer. "They simply do what they want, just as they always did."

The Ossovsky's son Nikolai was drafted out of medical college in 1996. Two months before the end of his service he died in what the Army called a suicide. The family has never been able to clear up the facts, Ossovsky says. The couple has managed to obtain a legal exemption for their younger son, Stanislav, but they do not feel confident that it will last.

Official figures show that 337 Russian soldiers suffered noncombat deaths last year, about 35 percent of them suicides. The Soldiers' Mothers Committee, a grass-roots antimilitary group, says the actual number is 2,000 to 3,000 noncombat deaths each year, based on investigation requests they get from bereaved parents.

"The Army is a dangerous and miserable place for young men," says Yulia Smirnova, a legal counselor for the group. "People just do not want to give their children to the generals for two years." She says the deeply unpopular war in Chechnya is a major factor in the aversion to serving.

In recent years the number of available conscripts has plunged due to demographic pressures and widespread draft evasion, leading military recruiters to resort to rough measures. In Moscow there are daily reports of lightning raids by press gangs on youth hangouts, metro stations, even schools, to seize eligible young men.

At the Moscow headquarters of the Soldiers' Mothers Committee, the halls are choked with boys - many accompanied by their mothers - desperately seeking advice on how to evade the recruiters. "We are seeing increasingly high-handed methods being used by the military authorities," says Ms. Smirnova. "They are even scooping students, with valid exemptions, off the streets and taking them to induction centers. The idea is, grab them first and sort out the paperwork later."

The Defense Ministry admits that fewer than 10 percent of males ages 18 to 27 are available for service this year, down from 25 percent a decade ago. The main reasons are an apparently disastrous decline in the health of Russian youth and the creative use of legal deferments.

"I will try to get my son another student exemption, and if not I'll put him into a hospital," says Galina Arsenyeva with her son, Ivan, whose student exemption expires next month. "I will find some way to keep him out of the Army." Sitting beside her, Ivan looks embarassed. "Some guys are made to be soldiers, but it's not my thing," he says. "I don't want it."

Several Moscow-area recruitment officials declined to be interviewed for this story, and a spokesman for the Defense Ministry said it could take weeks to arrange permission to visit an induction center.

Like most Russians, Mr. Ossovsky is proud of his father's war record in World War II. He has no complaints about his own service in the Soviet Army in the 1970s. But, he says, "Today's Army has nothing in common with the one that defended the country in World War II." The battle against the Nazis was sacred for Russians, but opinions here about the role of the military have changed.

One factor could be the decline in family size over the past century. In the 1920s the average Russian woman had nearly seven children. By the 1980s the rate declined to less than two children per woman. "People have far fewer children, so it's natural that they're more protective of them," says Sergei Kazyonnov of the Institute of National Security and Strategic Research here. He says this may be the best argument for a professional Army. "We should create good conditions for those with the predilection to be soldiers."

Former President Boris Yeltsin pledged in 1996 to abolish the draft by 2000. Vladimir Putin, recently reelected in a landslide, has said conscription will be phased out, with most combat roles being carried out by paid volunteers by 2007.

The main obstacle to change, experts say, is money. Russia's defense budget is about $12 billion annually, hardly enough to pay salaries, much less replace Soviet-era hardware.

Many people had hoped that the Law on Alternative Service, passed last year, would ease the social strains of conscription by allowing "conscientious objectors" to perform civilian work in lieu of joining the Army. But critics say the law is too harsh, setting nearly impossible criteria for applicants to "prove" their pacifist credentials and then forcing them to serve three years, often as menial laborers on military bases. Just 216 young men have been approved for alternative service this year.

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