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By Oksana Yablokova Staff Writer

Torn Duma Passes Alternative Service

The Moscow Times, April 18, 2002

The State Duma narrowly approved on first reading Wednesday thegovernment's billon alternative military service that allows young people ofdraft age to carry out civilservice if they put in twice as much time as in the army and canprove they are pacifistsat heart.

The bill was passed with a vote of 251-158, just 25 votes abovethe minimum requiredfor approval. Lawmakers earlier debated and rejected two otherversions.The Communists, their allies the Agro-Industrial group and twoliberal factions,Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces (SPS), voted against thegovernment-backedbill.

The bill, which was thrashed out by the military and Dumadeputies, calls for two yearsof alternative service for conscripts with a university degreeand four years for thosewithout. The bill also envisages that a draftee will be requiredto prove his pacifistbeliefs in order to qualify for the civil service, while a draftcommission can reject hisapplication if it finds his argument unconvincing.

The legislation, which must be approved in three readings and then by the Federation Council and the president, will remove a discrepancy between the Constitution and the practice of compulsory military service. The 1993 Constitution grants draftees the right to seek alternative service if they cannot perform army service for religious or ethical reasons.

The Communists, who earlier this month lost much of their influence in the Duma when they were stripped of major committee posts, fought to get the vote taken off the agenda Wednesday morning. They argued that Russia was not ready for alternative service and that it would only further destroy an army plagued by hazing and draft-dodging.

Liberal lawmakers criticized the government's bill as a draconian measure designed to punish those seeking alternative service.

"Its main essence is to remove any desire for alternative service," Liberal Russia Deputy Yuly Rybakov said, presenting a bill he had drafted together with deputies from SPS and Russia's Regions.

Under that version, draftees would not have to prove their beliefs and would serve 1 1/2 years if they had university degrees and three years without them.

Supporters of the government's bill said controversial provisions such as the length of the service could be amended ahead of the second reading, the date for which remains to be decided.

The third of the drafts rejected by the deputies was the most radical. The bill, proposed by SPS Deputy Vladimir Semyonov, called for an abolishment of the draft and a switch to a professional army. He said the other versions allowed deputies "to deceive themselves, prolonging the agony of the draft system."

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who was attending military exercises in Nizhny Novgorod on Wednesday, called for a speedy passage of the government's bill. He said it would end "pseudo-experiments" in alternative service, a reference to an experiment in Nizhny Novgorod in which 29 young men are performing alternative service in the city's hospital.

Nizhny Novgorod's mayor signed a decree allowing the experiment last year, but the regional court annulled the decision in February. The 29 men are expected to receive draft notices shortly. The draftees say they will fight for their constitutional right in court.

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The Moscow Times, April 18, 2002

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