Russia aims to tighten military draft law

A new bill would cancel a third of all legal reasons for draft deferments.

Until this week, Denis Glotov believed he was exempt from Russia's compulsory military service due to a rare neurological problem identified in his childhood and confirmed by recent tests in a state hospital. But on Wednesday, his local recruitment office simply set aside the medical record and ordered Denis to report immediately for basic training.

"We're going to fight this, but the chances are not good once he's been inducted into the Army," says Denis's father, Viktor, who is a lawyer. "The problem is that the military recruiters are under so much pressure to provide warm bodies that they're just grabbing anyone they can lay their hands on, and figure they'll sort out the legalities later."

Due to falling birthrates over the past two decades, Russia's pool of young men available for military service is shrinking rapidly, triggering what Mr. Glotov and others describe as frantic efforts by recruiters to keep the 1.3- million strong armed forces flush with manpower. At the same time, public opposition to the country's universal conscription system is rising. A poll conducted this month by the state-run VTsIOM polling agency found that 50 percent of Russians now want a US-style all-volunteer force, up from 39 percent two years ago.

A new bill passed this week by the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, aims to square that circle by reducing the obligatory term of service from two years to one, while canceling about a third of all legal reasons for draft deferments, beginning in 2008.

Some experts say the new measures will solve little, and could hamper serious efforts to reform and professionalize the Soviet-era military behemoth. Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin pledged to abolish the draft by 2000, but his successor, Vladimir Putin, has lately dropped his early talk of evolving toward a system of paid volunteers by 2010.

No all-volunteer army

"Right now, the official position is that Russia will have conscription forever," says Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent defense expert. "But canceling deferments will increase social tensions, while one-year terms of service are simply not workable from the military's point of view. Many people believe that's just a carrot that will be taken away later."

While students at major academic institutions will still not be drafted until graduation, deferments will be ended for most in vocational and technical schools. Men with pregnant wives, small children, or dependent parents will also be called up. Most controversially here in culturally conscious Russia, thousands of artists, dancers, and musicians who currently enjoy exemptions will see them lifted. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov personally lobbied for that change, saying he saw no reason why balalaiyeshniki – which translates roughly as "banjo-strummers" – shouldn't have to serve.

"We are terribly worried about this," says Larisa Kazantseva, director of music school for teenagers in Pushkino, which is near Moscow. "A musician's hands are his main instrument, and their hands will be ruined in the Army." She says the country's demographic crisis is already visibly hitting Russia's artistic potential, and conscription will deepen the loss. "A few years ago we had plenty of talented young men coming up, but there are already fewer of them. The country is losing its cultural edge," she says.

Medical deferments are not to be changed under the new bill, which Mr. Putin is expected to sign into law in coming weeks. But experts say the number of cases like Denis Glotov's, where recruiters simply ignore the rules, are likely to keep growing.

"Recruiting stations have their own doctors, who often flagrantly contradict the medical documentation," says Svetlana Kuznetsova, chair of the Moscow Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, a grass-roots organization that counsels draft-age youth. "It happens especially near the end of the annual recruitment drive, when the order comes down: 'take everything that moves,' " she says.

About 1.3-million Russian men reached the age of 18 in 2005, but that will drop by a third in 2010, according to the State Statistics Service. Experts say the pool of available young men may plummet by about half again in the following decade. "The system of conscription is doomed by demographic factors," says Mr. Felgenhauer. "Our generals are clinging to the old model of a mobilization army, in which huge numbers of boys with rifles and masses of tanks win wars. But it's obvious Russia won't be able to sustain that, with or without conscription."

The military's bad reputation

One reason conscription is unpopular, and draft-evasion rife, is the Russian Army's reputation for brutal hazing, corruption, and negligent leadership. The Russian media has widely covered this week's court hearings in the case of Private Andrei Sychev, who was brutally beaten by superiors on a Siberian military base, and subsequently denied medical treatment until gangrene destroyed his legs.

Experts say Mr. Sychev's fate is not unusual. Official figures show that 1,300 soldiers died in noncombat incidents last year, many of them related to hazing. "We believe the actual figure is much higher," says Ms. Kuznetsova. "Our Army is not a normal institution, it's a horror story."

Many countries, including Israel, Finland, and Switzerland have conscript armies, in which recruits are trained in their youth and then called up periodically for service. But Russia's reserve system has largely broken down due to disorganization and lack of funding, while the Army scrambles to replenish its ranks by inducting about half a million 18- to 27-year-old men annually. Experts say the new law, which will reduce the length of obligatory terms from two years to one in 2008, will only intensify the recruitment crisis while doing little to improve the national defense.

"One year's service may be enough to fill the ranks, but you can't properly train people in that time," says Svyatoslav Netlyayev, a journalism professor and former military journalist. "You're going to see a big increase in confusion."

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