TOPICS : Forced conscription roils Russians

Fred Weir

Olga and Grigory Ossovsky lost one son in military service and have struggled long 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 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, conscription is evidence that the Russian state remains fundamentally unreformed despite the long-ago demise of the Soviet Union. Official figures show that 337 Russian soldiers suffered noncombat deaths last year, about 35 per cent 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.

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. The Defence Ministry admits that fewer than 10 per cent of males ages 18 to 27 are available for service this year, down from 25 per cent a decade ago. The main reasons are an apparently disastrous decline in the health of Russian youth and the creative use of legal deferments. Like most Russians, 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. Former President Boris Yeltsin pledged in 1996 to abolish the draft by 2000. Vladimir Putin, recently re-elected 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 defence 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 labourers on military bases. Just 216 young men have been approved for alternative service this year. — The Christian Science Monitor