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Friday, 28 June, 2002, 14:25 GMT 15:25 UK
Russian conscripts get tough alternative
Russian soldiers test their fitness
Russia's army is notorious for its harsh conditions
Russia's lower house of parliament has passed a bill which will give young men a legal alternative to army service for the first time in decades.

But the bill imposes strict conditions which have been condemned by liberals as draconian and which make conscientious objection anything but a soft option.


Young people are never going to choose alternative service under these conditions

Lyubov Kuznetsova
Soldiers' Mothers' Committee

If, as expected, the bill is approved by the upper house and signed by President Vladimir Putin, the objectors will have to do extra service of between 12 and 18 months, far from home.

Since World War II, young men seeking to avoid military service have had to dodge the draft altogether - though their right to alternative service is enshrined in Russia's 1993 constitution.

According to an analysis by the Carnegie Moscow Centre, of the 400,000 Russians called up each year an estimated 100,000 dodge the draft.

The State Duma passed the bill on Friday in its third reading despite opposition by Communists who see it as too lenient and liberals who have decried its severity.

The new form of service comes with the following conditions:

  • Objectors will have to prove to the army that they have religious reasons or strong pacifist principles
  • Depending on status, they will be made to serve between three and three-and-a-half years instead of the two served by ordinary recruits
  • They will have to serve outside their home region, which could mean ending up thousands of kilometres from home across the vast Russian Federation
  • The bill does not make clear the nature of the alternative service - menial tasks or construction work may be a possibility

"People who are drafted will have to serve on military bases or on building sites, says Lyubov Kuznetsova of the Soldiers' Mothers' Committee, a well-known lobby group.

"It will be like a labour camp. Young people are never going to choose alternative service under these conditions."

Alternative experiment

The Bolsheviks allowed religious objectors to opt out of army service after the 1917 revolution, but Stalin abolished this provision in 1939.

The Russian army, like the Soviet army before it, is known for its harsh conditions of service.

Violent bullying is rampant and recruits are routinely killed or injured in exercises, if not in combat.

Russian soldiers on parade
The new law will take effect in 2004 if finally approved
The BBC's Sarah Rainsford went to see 20 recruits in the central Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod, who have been helping at a hospital for the past six months.

With the backing of the city's mayor, they hope they can set a model for the service.

But they have now received their draft papers and face a lengthy court battle to avoid having to restart their service in the army.

Critics also argue that the new legislation will be wide open to corruption.

For years, reports have been carried in the Russian media of parents bribing conscription officials to have their sons exempted from service.

See also:

31 May 02 | Europe
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