Russians turn draft-dodging into a fine art

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The Independent Online
HELEN WOMACK

Moscow

Back in Soviet times, Boris P was a master of evading military service. He never slit his wrists or feigned mental illness like his friends. His trick was beautiful in its simplicity.

"When the call-up papers arrived, I would leave town for a while," he said. "Eventually I would return and go to the recruiting office, because not to do so was illegal. But I always made sure I was a bit late. This gave time for the eager idiots to get in before me. The officers would fill up their quota and tell me to come back next season. I played this game for nine years until I got too old for the army."

It is a game the youths of Russia can no longer play, for the country has run out of eager idiots. With the war still raging in Chechnya, despite President Boris Yeltsin's peace initiative, few families want their sons to serve the Motherland.

The army is desperate for conscripts and has tightened the criteria over exemption from military service. The new policy goes against the goal Mr Yeltsin once had of moving towards a professional army and it defies the Council of Europe, which expects its members, now including Russia, to offer conscientious objectors alternative forms of service to society.

Thousands of middle-ranking officers are deeply unhappy about the state of the army. It is not crude nationalism many of them want but more democracy. Thanks to one disgruntled colonel, the Independent gained rare access to a recruiting centre. Normally such a visit would be arranged through the Ministry of Defence, but he let me in to observe the spring draft.

"For God's sake don't quote me," he kept saying, as he questioned the point of Russia starting the war in Chechnya and complained about the lack of reform in the forces. "I'll be in trouble if you name me," he said again, as he lamented the shortage of funds to pay and house officers and admitted the military could not give cast-iron guarantees that conscripts would not die of starvation or bullying in their two years of service. (Such cases are periodically reported in the Russian press).

So I will call him Colonel Y and say only that the red-brick recruiting centre was situated in southern Moscow.

Down both sides of a long, gloomy corridor on the ground floor, young men were waiting for medical examinations, some sitting with their legs defiantly flung out, others with their heads in their hands in a state of despondency. A few cringed with embarrassment because their mothers had insisted on accompanying them.

"My Andrei's in there," wailed a woman called Gallina, pointing at a doctor's door. "It's outrageous. He fell and hit his head. He's got a letter from the hospital but the army still drags him down here. He'll be a bag of nerves after this."

Other youths looked on pityingly. "Of course I don't want to serve. What do you think I am, a patriot?" whispered Dennis, a 19-year-old shop worker with long golden locks. "But I'll accept what comes, however it turns out."

This is how the system works: When a youth reaches 17, his name enters the register of the nation's men. All are either liable for service, unfit for service or have already served and gained particular skills. The list is kept so the country knows what human resources it has in case of war.

From the age of 18, the young man can expect to be called before a commission of officers, doctors and civilians who decide whether he will serve. Call- up papers go out every spring and autumn.

The commission will exempt the youth if he has a child under three years old or dependent elderly relatives. His service can be put off if he is in higher education. But if he does not take officer training at university and get into the reserve, he must still serve after he graduates and is liable up to the age of 27.

Young men may be exempted on medical grounds. This is where the contest of wits between the authorities and the younger generation begins.

"There are dozens of ways of making yourself medically unfit," says Boris P. "I know lads who have drunk cleaning fluid to give themselves stomach ulcers. The most popular way is to bribe a psychiatrist to certify you as mentally unstable. But that brings problems. If you get a white ticket [of exemption] on those grounds, you can't get a driving licence afterwards."

The army, faced with a 20-per-cent shortfall in the ranks, is cracking down on tricks. Doctors' decisions must be confirmed by other doctors. The range of genuine ailments taken into consideration has been drastically narrowed. Hernia and "dropsy of the testicles" are no longer sufficient.

Apart from Chechnya, young men fear being posted to the Far East. Komsomolskaya Pravda this week reported the death of Mikhail Kubarsky who died from hunger while serving in Khaberovsk. Also unpopular is a posting to the Stroibat, the battalion which builds roads. The television programme Vremechko, arguing that service amounts to slave labour, recently interviewed conscripts who worked as male prostitutes on the streets of Moscow to make money for cigarettes.

Colonel Y wants to see a professional army and would like the state Duma to pass a law on alternative service.

Next month, many of the youths in the corridor will be heading off in lorries. Whether they go to the Stroibat, the Far East or Chechnya, the army promises to make men of them.

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