Draft dodgers who would rather have TB than be called up

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The Independent Online

Valery Chernyshev checked into a hospital last month with hopes that a bad cough he had developed might turn out to be tuberculosis.

Valery Chernyshev checked into a hospital last month with hopes that a bad cough he had developed might turn out to be tuberculosis.

When that failed to happen, he stayed on as an outpatient while doctors studied an irregular heartbeat that was revealed during his tests.

"There is a chance it could be something serious," said 21-year-old Mr Chernyshev brightly. "But even if not, all these tests take up time." And time in a doctor's care is one thing that reliably holds Russia's military recruiters at bay.

Mr Chernyshev has been evading Russia's universal male conscription for three years now, first with an educational deferral and now by various medical dodges.

"What I need is a lasting disease, but they're not so easy to get," he said.

His goal is to make it to the maximum draft age of 27. "One way or another, I'm not going into the army."

Every spring and autumn the Russian military takes in about 200,000 eligible youths, but officials admit that fewer than 50 per cent show up voluntarily at recruitment centres.

Even before the war in Chechnya made violent death a likely consequence of military service, young Russian men were shunning the bankrupt, demoralised and ill-disciplined army in droves.

"We estimate that about 4,000 conscripts die every year, excluding combat deaths, due to accidents, hunger, disease and suicide," said Valentina Melnikova, coordinator of the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, a nationwide organisation that works for military reform. "It's hell in the armed forces these days, and every young man knows it."

For the well-heeled draft evader, there is a wide menu of choices. "Almost anything can be bought in this country, and generals come relatively cheap," said Dimitry Shesterin, 24, a successful long-term draft dodger who advises other young men on how to keep the military police from the door.

In Soviet times, choice military institutions, such as sports teams, orchestras and theatres, used to select the most talented conscripts for their own services.

Today, by many accounts, those places are for sale. "If I had $10,000 (£6,000) I could join the Red Army hockey team," said Mr Shesterin. "And I wouldn't have to play. The team has hundreds of members like that."

For as little as $3,000 an evader can purchase the magic stamp in his internal passport which says he has already completed his military service.

That scheme carries dangers, as Yury Ifronov, 23, discovered. "I was fine for a couple of years, until the head of my local recruitment office was changed," he said. "The new chief launched a check-up of all the files. In the end, I had to pay again."

Medical certificates reportedly sell for up to $5,000. Fictitious positions at accredited educational institutions - which carry automatic military deferment - can be arranged for $3,000 to $4,000.

"The amount of money paid in bribes to escape military service is equal to about 40 per cent of this country's annual military budget," former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, now a parliamentarian with the liberal Union of Right Wing Forces, said recently. "If we simply legalised these payments, we could solve the army's financial problems at a single stroke".

As a draft dodger's means fall, so do his options. "You can fake illness, or you can make a run for it," said Mr Shesterin. "Chances are you'll end up in jail, along with hundreds of others."

The Soldiers' Mothers Committee counsels young men to marry before they reach 18 and immediately get their wives pregnant.

"There is an automatic military deferral of two years for a new baby," said Flora Salikhovskaya, a spokesperson for the group. "I can't think of anything more patriotic than a Russian man who sires a baby every two years until he's 27."

Ironically, the least popular route for draft evaders is publicly to demand their legal prerogatives. Russia's 1993 constitution guarantees the right to alternative civilian duties for any citizen whose "personal or religious convictions are not compatible with military service".

However, successive Russian parliaments, dominated by pro-military hardliners, have refused to pass an enabling law for alternative service to the armed forces. As a result, courts usually send self-avowed conscientious objectors straight into the arms of military recruiters or, sometimes, to prison.

"It's the hardest road to take, but its the only one that leads to the rule of law in Russia," said Sergei Sorokin, who is head of the Anti-Militarist League, which provides legal advice to draft evaders. "We have hundreds of thousands of young draft dodgers with their heads down, running from the law. Things will change here when more of them are ready to stand up and fight for the law."