2007-02-23 Charles Maynes
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Draft dodging, Russian style

Russian conscripts in MoscowRussian conscripts in Moscow
It's a fact of life...and death. Service in the military always carries the risk of dying in battle. But recruits in the RUSSIAN army face an additional risk. They stand a chance of dying at the hands of older conscripts. Abusive treatment of army recruits in Russia is widespread - with hazing blamed for hundreds of suicides and…thousands of desertions each year.

Melnikova heads the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers. The group monitors the Russian military for incidents of mistreatment of its own soldiers. Melnikova's been tracking a case that involves a soldier who deserted his unit and then went missing. She says the soldier's mother fears her son may have become the latest victim…of his own army.

"The military official for a long time kept denying it, saying, 'No....No….No….' And now, finally, he's called the mother and told her they found a body hung from a tree in the forest somewhere. Is it him? Not him? Is he alive? Nobody knows….of course that weighs heavy on the mind."

The official account is that the army returned the young man to his unit….and then he ran away again. Melnikova says she and the other members of her committee just don't know what to believe.

"We were hoping he might turn up while it was still warm…but now…? Unfortunately, this happens…hundreds of times a year. We've found that often there's a faked suicide…but no one believes it and no one investigates."

Valentina MelnikovaValentina Melnikova
It's stories like these that have stamped Russia's army with a reputation for lawlessness and brutality. A 2004 report by Human Rights Watch documented routine abuse of conscripts.

Russian law requires all young men between 18 and 27 to serve two years in the army. But about 80 potential draftees have given two hours on a recent evening in Moscow to listen to Melnikova explain how to avoid conscription.

Melnikova is a trained lawyer, so it's a bit odd to see her dispensing medical advice.

'That slip on the ice when you were little? Did you hit your head?'
'One leg is clearly shorter than the other'…
'Take him in for cardiogram….'

Avoiding conscription does take preparation. Education and medical deferments are available, but they take official stamps, forms, and more forms… Many prefer to try/simplify their luck with bribes. But Melnikova warns the audience that paying money guarantees nothing.

Still, many here say they're at least willing to consider going the bribe route:

"…One guy I know bought his way out of service by bringing money to the recruiting office…as far as I understand about $4000. He was supposed to be conscripted but he didn't have to go…"

"….a bribe gets it done a little faster…you pay a bribe and he's obligated to help. so if you can't get it done legally, pay the money and it gets it done. That's my opinion.…"

"….I would think about that if it came to it. ..I have a lot of friends gone that route.. With the money you can earn in two years in Moscow it pays for itself..."

According Russian government statistics, just 9% of eligible young men are ultimately drafted for service each year. But many Russian families are unwilling to risk even those odds - it depends, they point out, which percentile, is yours….Young men here, however, say they would serve, if the army had something to offer. As is, they see the military as two years "deleted" from their lives. That's also the view of parents like Larissa, who's come to the meeting to learn how to keep her son out of the Russian army.

"If it was the Soviet army..that one that used to exist…I wouldn't fight for him not to go. I think every mother would let their son go. But now there are no rules…none at all. They can't even guarantee that he'll return alive or unharmed."

The case of private Andrei Sychev still reverberates in this country. Sychev was serving in the city of Chelyabinsk when he was beaten and tortured by higher ups last New Year's Eve. He contracted gangrene after delays in medical treatment, resulting in the amputation of his legs and genitals. The horror of the incident made national headlines here, but only, says activist Valentina Melnikova, after the authorities attempted to suppress the story.

"They tried to prevent the press from writing about it. But we made a lot of noise and the message got out. Thanks to the Internet…! Thanks to Bill Gates!"

Technology was also on the mind of Russian President Vladimir Putin during his annual address at the Defense Ministry in Moscow. In the speech, Putin detailed plans to upgrade weaponry and modernize Russia's strategic forces. Those steps will also include a push towards a professional contract army - with just 1 year of mandatory service for Russian conscripts by 2008.

Putin said, the move is designed to avoid tearing conscripts away for too long from their regular lives. But it may take more than words to convince young Russians that with army service comes security - not only for the nation but the soldiers themselves.

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