ON THE MATTER OF ALTERNATIVE SERVICE

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The government is working on a draft federal law resolving the problem

Article 59 of the Constitution states that Russian citizens are entitled to alternative service instead of military. Society, however, does not have a law “On Alternative Civilian Service”.

Conscripts who refuse to serve for religious or pacifist convictions are sent by army enlistment and recruitment offices to the units where the use of arms is not required: hospitals, construction battalions, railroad troops, and so on. Nevertheless, even this service is considered military and regulated by military codes. This is a clear violation of rights and freedoms of the persons with certain convictions. That is why adoption of the law on the alternative service is so pressing a problem.

The Duma made several attempts to prepare this document. On December 14, 1994, the first composition of the Duma discussed the draft law “On Alternative Civilian Service” in its first reading. On May 24 and December 8, 1995, the draft was discussed in the second reading and was torpedoed on both occasions on the grounds of failure to take into account ethnic traits and interests of the Russian state, its economic capacity, and the international practice of organization of alternative service.

The second composition of the Duma in 1996 – 98 continued the discussion. Assisted by representatives of the Defense Ministry, the Defense Committee and other committees and commissions of the lower house of the parliament worked out a new draft of the federal law “On Alternative Civilian Service” which tried to take all opinions and remarks into account. In any case, the draft law was killed in October 1998.

Since then, the work on the draft law “On Alternative Civilian Service” was taken up by the government which also has the privilege of legislative initiative. Sources in the General Staff say that the draft law is now being looked at in federal executive structures. The work on it is supposed to be completed by 2000 and forwarded to the new Duma. The document includes the following major principles:

– alternative civilian service should be available to citizens with religious or pacifist convictions;

– the necessity of providing alternative service should be proved;

– alternative service should be provided on the exterritorial principle, and such conscripts should become civilian personnel of the Armed Forces and other troops: ecological, search-and-rescue formations, state and municipal construction, road construction, repair organization, and medical and social organizations;

– differentiated length of the alternative service between two and four years depending on the category of conscripts (with higher education and others) and on the place of the service (in organized formations, beyond the territory of the Federation subject, and in other cases);

– the Defense Ministry should not have anything to do with the decision on whether or not any given conscript should be sent to alternative service because this is a matter of civilian authorities exclusively. Such decisions should be made by special commissions set up by local authorities, and these panels should be absolutely independent of military structures;

– salaries of the men on alternative service should be lower than salaries of other employees, and the service should earn enough to justify its existence.

Representatives of the General Staff say that they deliberately avoided making army enlistment and recruitment offices responsible for decisions concerning availability of the alternative service. According to the draft law, the decisions will have to be made by special panels set up by local civilian authorities. On the other hand, the commissions should necessarily include representatives of the Defense Ministry and other security structures. The decision will make decisions concerning every draftee who claims religious and pacifist convictions. Location of the alternative service should be removed from the place of residence. Exterritorial principle of alternative service is needed to help the state organize implementation of hard and frequently unprestigious jobs (construction in rural areas, work at hazardous enterprises, and so on) and to help the local authorities withstand the temptation to leave all youths on alternative service under their own control.

Alternative service is available in a number of Western countries like Germany. Authors of the Russian draft law have copied some principles of alternative service from the practice adopted in these countries. on the other hand, “Russian specifics” was taken into account (the exterritorial principle, service lengthier than in other countries, etc).

Military experts are now trying to analyze the situation which will take shape with appearance of alternative service. Will there be many applications? Will it affect the quantity and quality of conscripts drafted into the Army and Navy? The General Staff is looking for answers to these and other questions. Sources in the General Staff say that if the alternative service is made twice as long as military, there will not be that many applications. Not more than 1% of all conscripts. On the other hand, legislators may amend the draft, and the number of young men who do not want to serve may increase.

In the meantime, the alternative service will not be easy. Like conscripts in the military service, those in the alternative will be restricted in rights. Such young men will not be allowed to participate in strikes, will have their freedom of movement restricted, and will be paid smaller salaries. Violation of the rules of alternative service will be punishable.

Military experts say meanwhile that the number of those who want to serve in the army may go down sharply in the light of political events. The war in Dagestan and losses sustained by the federal troops scare the families with youths of draft age. Until recently, only contract servicemen were sent to hot spots. Only contract servicemen used to be sent to battle under Clause 1 of Presidential Decree No 723 (May 16, 1996) “On The Order of Sending Conscripts to Missions in Areas of Local Conflicts and to Participation in Hostilities”. Since autumn 1998, however, the range of categories of servicemen who can be sent to hot spots was broadened by the Law “On Military Duty and Military Service”.

The law states that conscripts may also be sent to the areas of local conflicts provided they are volunteers. Everybody knows how this principle is implemented…

The country is in the grips of a crisis and does not have money to pay contract servicemen. Sending volunteers to hot spots does not collide with international practice or principles of social fairness. Knowing Russia as we do, however, it is all to easy to guess that violations and manipulations are possible. For example, soldiers are summoned for a roll-call and asked something like “Which of you fears a hot spot?” Hardly will anybody dare “display cowardice”. After that, the servicemen will be told to put their signature where needed, stating that they are “not cowards” and “are ready for combat.”

In any case, it is clear that lack of stability and availability of hot spots may increase the number of young men who will opt for alternative service. In the meantime, adoption of the federal Law “On Alternative Civilian Service” is coming closer. Much depends on who is elected into the Duma.

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