Battlefront drawing closer

May 5, 1995

The loophole which allows Russian graduates to avoid military conscription is closing fast.

State Duma deputies (members of Russia's lower house) have overwhelmingly backed a new law extending national service from 18 months to two years for all young men and abolishing the rule which allowed university students who undertook military training courses at college to move straight from graduation to the rank of reserve (territorial army) lieutenant.

In an unprecedented move the Duma passed all three readings of the new conscription law in one day, voting 245 to 49 in a closed session of parliament earlier this month following an emotionally-charged speech by the chief of the general staff, Colonel General Mikhail Kolesnikov, who told the deputies that the Russian army was so understaffed that it was not ready for combat.

It was the first time a bill had been approved in one day at the state Duma, a body more normally associated with noisily incoherent protests against President Yeltsin's decrees.

But in the hawkish political atmosphere following the disastrous, and initially incompetent, Russian campaign against Chechnya's bid for independence and the much televised military and humanitarian blunders in Grozny and surrounding towns there are many voices making rousing calls to patriotism.

The vote, which was heavily backed by the pro-Yeltsin Stability faction is likely to swiftly receive ratification.

If it does become law this summer's graduates are, from October, likely to face a year in the services at the rank of sergeant before being allowed a transfer at the rank of lieutenant to the reserve. Controversy immediately surrounded the Duma's decision, taken purely on the basis of the general's speech, without reference to a printed version of the draft law.

Many deputies leaving the chamber after the vote put different interpretations on the precise nature and implications of their decision.

The reaction among students, academics and commentators has been generally dismissive: the respected daily newspaper Izvestia ran on its front page an open letter to President Yeltsin from a group of leading academics and intellectuals condemning the "dangerous" move.

Signatories included associations for university rectors or vice chancellors in both Moscow and St Petersburg.

Izvestia reporter Alexei Portansky said the absence of real military reform in Russia had left the generals "trying to solve their most pressing problems with whatever means available".

In a commentatory published in the English-language Moscow Times, Mr Portansky questioned the decision to draft graduates, which would add some 45,000 conscripts to the ranks each year, a tiny percentage of the 600,000 manpower shortfall identified in the army by the Russian ministry of defence.

Mr Portansky said: "Our generals will be forced to continue putting fingers in the dyke until our politicians finally face the fact that sweeping military reform is inevitable."

Many say Russia should be moving swiftly towards a professional, contract-based army like that in most other European countries Professionalising the army is the one common aim shared by all sides of Russia's confusing and frequently chaotic debate over the crisis in its military ranks.

Sergei Ivanov, a former Russian Army marines major, now studying for a masters in business administration at the private International University in Moelieves, said: "Now it is very important for the army to have enough personnel of the right intellectual level: most of our soldiers are peasants from the villages with a low educational background.

"A professional, compact and mobile army is a good idea, but currently it is simply impossible."

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