The Russian Federation has had a conscription army since 1918.3 In recent years, approximately 400,000 young men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-seven are drafted each year to serve in the regular army, the Ministry of Internal Affairs forces, border troops, and other branches of Russia's vast armed forces.4 During the Soviet period conscription was a fact of life that was not open to public discussion. But after perestroika, Russians were able to voice their objections to conscription, and it became increasingly unpopular with the Russian public. Combined with reports about the disastrous state of the Russian military, these objections spurred many debates about transition to a professional army.
The immense public antipathy toward conscription is closely linked to numerous exposés about endemic abuses in the armed forces. Among the first was Yuri Poliakov's 1987 novel, One Hundred Days Until the Order, which gave the Soviet public the first opportunity to read a frank account of violent hazing of conscripts during their first year of service.5 In subsequent years, especially after the break-up of the Soviet Union, the media continued to expose the appalling conditions in the armed forces, including severe malnutrition and poor medical care that sometimes led to death and permanent injury of conscripts. Journalists also provided vivid descriptions of conscripts' desperation that too often led to suicide, frequent attempts to desert, and a pattern of deserters going on shooting sprees or committing suicide in order to avoid having to return to their military unit.6
As young men of conscription age and their parents became increasingly wary about the perils of military service, many of them started looking for ways, both legal and illegal, to avoid it.7 A network of soldiers' mothers' organizations emerged throughout the Russian Federation dedicated to helping young men and their parents find legal ways of avoiding conscription. For more than ten years, these groups-one of Russia's most widespread and effective grassroots movements-have helped thousands of young men avoid being drafted arbitrarily when they had legitimate grounds not to serve. They have also helped defend the rights of numerous conscripts who fled their units due to ill-treatment, malnutrition, and other abuse.
Popular discontent with the treatment of conscripts reached new heights in the mid-1990s, when Russia's military leadership sent poorly prepared conscripts to fight in the war in Chechnya. Thousands of conscripts died.8 By 1996, conscription was so unpopular that, as part of a desperate effort to boost his ratings during the election campaign, then-President Boris Yeltsin promised to abolish it after he was reelected. Yeltsin abandoned his promise. Today, with Russia's second Chechen war entering its fourth year, young men of conscription age continue to fear being sent to Chechnya to fight, although public protests against the war have not reached 1996 levels.
In November 2001, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced plans for a long-term and sweeping overhaul of the armed forces. The plan envisages significantly downsized armed forces made up only of well-paid professionals and equipped with updated military hardware by 2010. It calls for the gradual abolishment of conscription, starting in 2004.9 In March 2002, Ivanov announced that the Ministry of Defense would start by transforming one paratrooper division in mid-2002, an experiment he said would allow officials to plan for the subsequent transition of the rest of the armed forces.10 Although many Ministry of Defense officials seemed skeptical about the transition to a professional army, few challenged the view that reforms were necessary.
The Conscription Process
In the year he turns seventeen, a male citizen is entered into the military registry (in Russian: voinskii uchet). At this time, a preliminary determination is made as to whether he is fit for military service or has grounds for a non-medical exemption.12
When he turns eighteen, a Russian male receives a summons to appear at his local draft board for conscription proceedings. According to the regulation on conscription, he must be directly handed the summons and must sign it.13 If a young man is handed a draft summons and signs but subsequently does not appear for conscription proceedings, he is considered to be a draft dodger and is prosecuted under the criminal code.14 If officials are unable to physically hand a young man a summons, the military recruitment office may request the local police precinct in writing to help "ensure" his presence at conscription proceedings.15 Human Rights Watch did not find any cases in which a man delivered with a summons refused to sign, and it is unclear what consequences ensue in such cases.
Conscription proceedings ordinarily consist of a medical exam by physicians to determine a candidate's fitness for military service,16 and a determination by the draft board (in Russian, prizyvnaia komissia) as to whether he should be exempted from military service, given a deferral, placed in reserve, drafted, or sent to perform alternative service.17 It also assigns the candidate to a specific branch of service.18
Once the draft board has reached a decision to conscript, it informs the draftee, who is entitled to a copy of the conscription order upon request.19 The draft board then allows him to go home to await a service summons to appear at the collection point (in Russian, sbornyi punkt) from which he is to depart to his military base.20 This waiting period typically lasts from one day to about three months. During this time, the young man may appeal the draft board's decision.21 At the collection point, the municipal or province draft board reviews the decisions of the local commission, and a panel of medical doctors once again examines his fitness. After these procedures, representatives of military units meet the new conscripts and arrange for their departure.22
Draft Quota Problems
Many young men of conscription age do not want to serve in the armed forces. They are worried about endemic hazing, being sent to Chechnya, or simply see spending two years in the army as a waste of their time and career opportunities. Some are conscientious objectors who have no options for real alternative civilian service.24 Many temporarily or permanently avoid military service by enrolling in educational programs, or finding government jobs that allow them to defer service, or by having a doctor document legitimate health problems that disqualify them for service.25 Other young men use illegitimate means to avoid being conscripted by, for example, paying bribes to members of draft boards, doctors, or other officials.
Others simply avoid recruitment officials. They refuse to open the door when officials come to their homes to hand them draft summonses, do not live where they are registered, and ignore the summonses that are dropped into their mailboxes.26 According to the General Staff of the Armed Forces, every year 30,000 young men ignore draft summonses and fail to appear for conscription proceedings.27 This figure appears to include both young men to whom officials served summonses but who failed to appear for conscription proceedings, and young men who ignored summonses that had not been properly served and are thus invalid under the law. In July 2002, the Russian media reported that in Nizhnii Novgorod the number of people the military recruitment office considered such draft evaders outnumbered those actually drafted during that conscription period.28
Military officials have found it particularly difficult to conscript young men in Moscow, likely a consequence of better access to information, greater career opportunities, and the higher level of wealth Moscow's youth enjoy compared to their peers elsewhere in Russia. The conscription quota set for Moscow is low compared to other regions, but recruitment officials still have difficulty meeting it. In the fall of 2001, only about 3 percent of all conscripts were drafted from Moscow, whereas young men of draft age in Russia's largest city make up almost 6 percent of the total number of young men of draft age in Russia.29 Official statistics for the 2001 fall conscription period show that between 50 and 60 percent of all young men processed by Moscow draft boards had an education-related right to deferral, 30 percent were declared unfit for military service, and 2 percent received a deferral based on their family situation.30 It is unclear what percentage of Muscovites of conscription age simply ignored draft summonses, served properly or not, in the fall of 2001, but according to official statistics about 10,000 Muscovites failed to appear at military recruitment offices for conscription proceedings.31 According to the Soldiers' Mothers of St. Petersburg, a similar situation exists in St. Petersburg.32
The deteriorating health of Russia's youths has compounded the conscription crisis. Poor health has disqualified about 50 percent of Russia's young men for military service each year in recent years. A Ministry of Defense official told a press conference in April 2002 that in 2001, doctors on draft boards found no less than 54 percent of the young men tested unfit for military service.33 Another official said that for the 400,000 young men drafted some 600,000 young men are declared unfit each year.34
Because Russia's youth is wracked with poor health, and because many of Russia's most healthy and educated young men successfully manage to avoid military service, recruitment officials are often left to select conscripts from a group of young men with low education levels and sometimes serious health problems. An unidentified Russian lawmaker told The Moscow Times that, in a speech to the State Duma, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said the young men drafted in the fall of 2001 were a "pathetic lot, afflicted with drug addiction, psychological problems and malnutrition."35 Ministry of Defense statistics indicate that every second conscript had an alcohol problem prior to entering service, and that every fourth had been a drug user.36 In October 2001, Moscow's acting military commissioner Viktor Beznosikov also complained at a press conference about the decreasing level of education among new conscripts and the increasing number of new conscripts with a criminal record.37 A July 2002 edition of the web publication Grani.ru described the average conscript as a "young man who has not completed high school" who, prior to being drafted, "did not study or work and indulged in vodka and narcotics." It concluded that the "absolute majority of conscripts come from poor and socially disadvantaged families that do not have the means to enroll the young man in paid education or buy them a false certificate for deferral."38
In response to the conscription crisis, officials have recently slashed conscription quotas; whereas traditionally about 200,000 people were conscripted during each of the two conscription periods, in the spring of 2002 the quota was set for just over 160,000.39 The Ministry of Defense is also developing legislation that would cut the list of deferral grounds and enable recruitment officials to draft tens of thousands of additional young men who currently work for government agencies.40 It remains unclear if and when this legislation will enter into force. Finally, in a number of large cities, including Moscow and St. Petersburg, recruitment officials have reverted to detaining perceived draft dodgers for conscription.41
3 Conscript and contract soldiers make up rank-and-file soldiers and sergeants in the Russian armed forces; in peacetime, conscript soldiers far outnumber contract soldiers. Higher ranks are made up of professional soldiers.
Military service is a special kind of federal state service, which citizens perform in the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, as well as in the border troops of the Russian Federation, the interior troops of the Ministry of Interior of the Russian Federation, the railway troops of the Russian Federation, troops of the federal agency for government communication and information under the president of the Russian Federation, civil defense troops (hereinafter-other troops), engineering-technical and road construction military formations of federal executive organs (hereinafter-military formations), the foreign intelligence service of the Russian Federation, the organs of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, the organs of the Federal Border Service of the Russian Federation, the federal organs for government communication and information, the federal organs of state security (in Russian: gosudarstvennoi okhrany), the federal organ for ensuring mobilization preparedness of the organs of state power of the Russian Federation (hereinafter-the organs) and in special formations created for time of war.
6 Vladimir Mukhin, "Minoborony: po Rossii guliaet dva batal'ona desertirov," (Defense Ministry: Two Batallions of Deserters are Wandering around Russia), Strana.ru, July 11, 2002. See: http://www.strana.ru/stories/01/08/23/1053/152459.html (Accessed September 3, 2002).
8 Official figures for the number of soldiers (including conscripts, contract soldiers, and officers) who died during the first Chechnya war vary from almost 4,000 to 5,500 (official figures cited in the newspaper Kommersant respectively on August 4, 2000 and September 21, 2000). Unofficial estimates are higher: journalist and Chechnya expert Viacheslav Ismailov estimated about 8,000 military servicemen had died (Novaia gazeta, [The New Gazette], April 10, 2000) and Kommersant cited the Union of Committees of Soldiers' Mothers as saying the figure was around 14,000. At least half, and possibly many more, of the deceased military servicemen were conscript soldiers.
11 Law on the Conscription Obligation and Military Service of March 28, 1998 (hereinafter-the law on military service). Decision of the Government of the Russian Federation "On the Confirmation of the Regulation regarding Conscription for Military Service of Citizens of the Russian Federation" (hereinafter-the regulation on conscription) of June 1, 1999, No. 587.
15 Article 31(2) of the law on military service and article 10 of the regulation on conscription. Officials authorized to deliver a draft summons include officials of the military recruitment office, supervisors at work or at educational institutions, and officials of the local authorities and other organizations responsible for work related to compulsory military service (see: article 7 of the regulation on conscription and article 31(2) of the law on military service).
16 Russian law contains a long list of medical grounds that exempt an individual from performing military service temporarily or permanently. The law on military service establishes five categories of fitness of conscript candidates: A - fully fit for military service; B - fit for military service with minor restrictions; C - partially fit for military service; D - temporarily unfit for military service; and E - unfit for military service. Conscript candidates who are classified in category A and B are considered fit for military service, although category B excludes service in certain types of units. People classified in category C do not have to serve in peacetime but may be drafted in time of war. The fitness of conscript candidates in category D is re-examined within a year (Article 24 (1a) of the law on military service). Those placed in category E cannot be drafted even in time of war. An appendix to the Regulation on the Military Medical Examination (confirmed by Decision No. 390 of the government of the Russian Federation of April 20, 1995) contains a list of medical conditions and the relevant categories. The appendix can be found at: http://www.hro.org/docs/rlex/milexp/index.htm (accessed on August 23, 2002).
17 Articles 23 and 24 of the law on military service provide for a complex set of non-medical exemption and deferral grounds. For example, a candidate may claim exemption if he has performed military service in a different state, or if his father or brother died while performing military service or as a result of injuries sustained during military service. A candidate has a right to deferral for certain types of studies, if he has a child under three, is a single father, if he is the only person obliged by law to care for an immediate relative in need of constant care, if he works as a medical doctor in an agricultural environment, or under other circumstances. See: http://www.hro.org/docs/rlex/newzvovs/razdel4.htm#24 (accessed on August 23, 2002).
21 The law on military service does not specify a fixed statutory period for appeal of a draft board decision. However, the 1993 Law on Court Appeals against Decisions and Actions that Violate the Rights and Freedoms of Citizens establishes that court appeals against decisions by state and other agencies must be launched within three months of the moment the plaintiff became aware of the violation of his right (Article 5)
23 Valentina Melnikova of the Union of Committees of Soldiers' Mothers of Russia told Human Rights Watch that military officials set inflated draft quotas. She explained that quotas are based on information from local military registries, which do not accurately reflect the health conditions of many of the young men, as medical examinations conducted when they are entered into the registry are often cursory.
24 After years of delays in parliament, in July 2002, Russia adopted a law regulating conscientious objection. The law will enter into force only on January 1, 2004. It sets out a 3.5-year period of alternative service, and a three-year period for those willing to perform alternative service on military bases.
25 Certain types of jobs at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the tax police, the customs services, and other government agencies entitle their holders to defer military service. See article 24(1g-h) of the law on military service. Medical commissions attached to draft boards frequently perform only a superficial medical examination. Soldiers' mothers' groups therefore recommend that men be examined by specialists and present their reports to the doctors at the military recruitment office to force them to pay serious attention to health problems.
26 The law on military service requires recruitment or other officials to hand summonses directly to the young men, who must sign the summons in acknowledgement. A summons that is simply left in a mailbox does not have legal force. See article 7 of the regulation on conscription.
29 Six thousand of a total of almost 200,000 conscripts (about 3 percent) were drafted from Moscow. "Na voennuiu sluzhbu prizvany 6 tysiach Moskvichei" [Six thousand Muscovites were drafted for military service], Utro [Morning], January 24, 2002. See: http://www.utro.ru/articles/2002012413310658093.shtml (Accessed on September 3, 2002). Official statistics show there were about ten million draft age men in Russia in 2001 (Demographic Yearbook of Russia for 2001, published by the State Committee of the Russian Federation on Statistics, Moscow 2001). According to information received from the Moscow city statistics committee, there were 592 682 men of draft age registered in Moscow as of early 2002.
31 Akhmed Tagirov and Alla Tuchkova, "Moskva - stolitsa uklonistov." In February 2002, recruitment officials stated that some 3,000 young men were then believed to be ignoring summonses. This figure apparently includes both summonses properly served and those left in mailboxes. "Ot sluzhby v armii otklonilis 3 tys moskvichei"[Three thousand Muscovites evaded military service], Utro, February 1, 2002. See: http://www.utro.ru/news/2002020115394059600.shtml (Accessed on September 3, 2002).
33 This figure was provided at a press conference by Vladislav Putilin, the head of the Main Department for Mobilization of the General Staff of the Armed Forces. Cited in "Generaly ne ostavili prizyvnikam shansov" [The generals gave the conscripts no chance], Utro, April 2, 2002, See: www.utro.ru/articles/2002040216595170289.shtml (accessed on September 3, 2002).
39 The conscription periods are from October 1 through December 31 and from April 1 through June 30. The president of the Russian Federation regulates by decree how many young men should be drafted during each conscription period. In the spring of 2002, 161,732 people were to be drafted, in the fall of 2001 - 194,824, in the spring of 2001 - 187,995. See: www.utro.ru/articles/2002040109114169846.shtml, www.utro.ru/articles/2001092513583037416.shtml, and
40 Natalia Yefimova, "Lawmaker: Defense Ministry Plans to Slash Draft Deferrals," The Moscow Times, September 12, 2002. See also: "Minoborony RF `boleet' za prizyv," [The Defense Ministry is on Conscripts' Side] Utro, January 16, 2002. See: http://www.utro.ru/news/2002011617114856747.shtml (Accessed on September 3, 2002).
41 Media have also reported conscription through detention in Samara. "Kak loviat prizyvnikov v samarskoi oblasti," Utro, April 4, 2001. See: http://www.utro.ru/news/200104041457597821.shtml (accessed September 3, 2002).