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.

"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.

"The Defense Ministry and the deputies that lobby for its interests have managed to kill every attempt to frame such a law," says Svetlana Fomina, a constitutional expert at the Institute of State and Law, which is part of the official Academy of Sciences. "Obviously they are afraid that everyone will try to use such a law as a way to get out of military service," she says.

The lack of legislation puts the courts in a bind. Yelena Mizulena, a constitutional lawyer and deputy chief of the Duma's legislative commission, says the only correct solution would be to let the boys go free until parliament passes the necessary law.

"The Constitution should always take precedence," she says. "However, the courts in Russia are highly susceptible to official pressure, and the judge who will take such a decision is very rare. This is only one of many areas where courts simply do not dare do what they know is right. And it will remain like this until we achieve deep judicial reform in this country."

Judges tend to convict about two-thirds of the young Russians who come before them demanding alternative service, says Sergei Sorokin, head of the Anti-Militarist League, an organization that supports draft dodgers. Evading military service is a serious offense under Russia's criminal code, punishable by two years or more in prison. "Right now in Moscow alone there are about 400 of these cases before the courts," he says. "We are not optimistic about the outcomes, because the official environment is getting much tougher."

There are no reliable figures, but it is estimated that 40,000 or more Russians are presently on the lam from Army recruiters. Every year about 250,000 young men are drafted under Russia's universal conscription laws.

Mr. Sorokin admits that only a fraction of them come to the Anti-Militarist League, which urges draftees to turn themselves in and seek their right to alternative service through the courts.

Greater numbers turn to groups like the Committee of Soldier's Mothers, a grass-roots organization that supports an underground railroad for draft dodgers and Army deserters, and counsels young men to avoid service by any means available. Among the methods they suggest are medical and disability certificates provided by sympathetic doctors and arranging student deferments. The group routinely advises married draftees to get their wives pregnant, because every new baby means a three-year deferment.

But the short-term outlook for success in the courts isn't good. President-elect Vladimir Putin is moving to close loopholes in draft procedures, cut down on student deferments, and toughen penalties for evaders. "Putin has made it clear that he believes in peace through military strength, and he will have no sympathy for those who don't agree," says Sorokin.

Despite all this, Barzhenov says he's optimistic. "In the past five years I've learned a lot, met a lot of people like myself, and I have survived. I'm much more confident today that justice can be obtained through Russian courts."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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