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Russian youth shuns army draft
By Jon Boyle

MOSCOW, Dec 10 (Reuters) - The nagging pain from a ruptured disc in his back has drained all the colour from Ivan Andreyevich's face.

But the draft board says the 19-year-old is fit to serve and he faces a court battle to avoid conscription into an army with a fearsome record for non-combat deaths and mistreatment of recruits.

"My condition should mean I am only fit to serve in wartime," said Andreyevich, whose draft papers arrived just days after he was kicked out of the institute where he was studying, accused of poor work.

After a cursory medical check, Andreyevich says he was brought swiftly before the draft board, which gave his condition short shrift. "On my papers there was a note to say that I would bring them an X-ray (of my back) the next day. But they just tore it off and threw it away," he said.

Within weeks of President Vladimir Putin signing a draft decree conscripting 189,000 young men into Russia's armed forces, 500 youths like Andreyevich flocked to a group of redoubtable women intent on saving the nation's sons from the military.

From a small run-down office in a Moscow high-rise block, the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers organises resistance to what it sees as the systematic abuse of the draft by careless and venal bureaucrats.

Committee member Irina Kosyakova, who is advising Andreyevich, accused draft boards across the country of ignoring young men's rights in order to fill their quotas.

Those who can, pay a bribe to avoid the draft. Prices can range from $2,500 to $7,000 or even $10,000, depending on family circumstances, said Kosyakova.

"Since they have a recruitment plan, they have to provide fresh bodies. That's why they have to violate the rules and summon boys who are not fit to serve, but who are too poor to pay," she said.


That draft-dodging has become an industry in Russia shows the low esteem many Russians hold for the heir to the Red Army.

Regular reports of desertions and shootings involving recruits desperate to escape the daily diet of verbal abuse, humiliations and beatings, point to a crisis far deeper than poor pay, conditions and low education by NCOs. Analysts say it is so widespread that the officer corps too must be involved.

In August, 19-year-old Denis Pertsov cracked, unloading his Kalashnikov assault rifle into four colleagues he said had beaten and humiliated him during his eight months in the army. In July, two conscripts shot dead six colleagues they said had bullied them.

The exact number of non-combat deaths in the Russian armed forces each year is a secret, says independent military expert Alexander Golts. He calculates 50 servicemen were killed in non-combat incidents in July alone.

Half of all recruits were unemployed when they were drafted and one in 10 has some sort of police record. "It's like giving weapons to prisoners," Golts said.

Even Vladislav Putilin, the general in charge of manpower, admits the military has an image problem. "Society does not accept the existing system, and we realise that the system has to be changed."

"I don't want to serve in the army we have now, because there is no law and order -- they do what they want," said Denis Starikh, a 19-year-old Muscovite who says his blood pressure disorder should exempt him from service.

"I have many friends who served who tell me not to. But they won't tell me what was wrong. They hide it."

Andreyevich says mistreatment is one of the main reasons young men are afraid to serve in the army.

"I had a friend who went into the army a healthy young man, but he came out with heart trouble and was operated on but not very successfully."

The Moscow region draft board tells a different story. Spokesman Viktor Tchmutov said about 7,000 young men were drafted from the region this autumn, "and I think that our lads are proud to serve."

"We have had no illegal drafting of people with a medical condition," he said, and no such complaints had been received by the draft board. "If such complaints are received we will sort them out before they are drafted," he added.

"We have already sent off more than 40 percent of those drafted, and there have been no cases of the law being broken."


This month parliament is due to consider four "alternative service" bills offering a substitute to serving in the armed forces, which is a constitutional duty for young men.

"I think that the principle of alternative service is a shameful half-measure so that citizens have the right, until we can switch to a fully professional army, to swap military service for some sort of civilian service," said liberal lawmaker Semyonov, who opposes the principle of the draft.

A "generals' bill," backed by the military top brass and chairman of parliament's defence committee, places tough limits on who can opt out of national service and would make young men work for the state for four years.

"The youth of today have a very low opinion of the Ministry of Defence and the draft board, because everyone knows citizens' rights are violated," Semyonov said.

Putin's preference is unknown, but last month he approved a government plan to slash the numbers of conscripts.

No date has been given for scrapping the two-year military service, but Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov said it was unlikely to go through before 2004. Former president Boris Yeltsin promised in 1996 to abolish the draft by 2000.

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