Loophole helps draft objectors

July 12, 1996

A court victory by a young conscientious objector may offer hope to the thousands of Russian university students who face - and fear - military service after graduation.

The ruling by a Moscow regional court to uphold 19-year-old Vadim Gesse's constitutional right to refuse military service in favour of reporting for alternative civil service, may offer student objectors to the draft the legal means to avoid taking up arms.

Russia's bloody civil war in Chechnya and the military's savage reputation among conscripts has influenced many young men in the past two years to seek university education rather than going straight into business or employment. Last year political pressure closed the legal loophole allowing graduates to serve their military time in the reserves if they took a special army course at college.

The prospect of being sent to Grozny - even as a member of the officer corps, which all graduates enter when drafted - weighs heavily on most male students. Many nearing the end of their courses say the main reason they are applying for overseas postgraduate places is to further avoid conscription.

When Gesse was called up in October last year he informed the local recruiting officer in the village of Zelyony, near Moscow, that his political and ethical beliefs forbade military service and he requested alternative service. His decision was backed by Article 59 of the Russian constitution of 1993 which says citizens, "whose beliefs or religion oppose the bearing of arms, and in other cases established by federal law, have the right to replace with alternative civilian service".

But recruiting officer Colonel Alexander Iskorostinsky brushed aside Gesse's moral objections and ordered him to report for duty. Gesse refused and in January this year he was arrested and remanded in prison for 40 days before a national and international outcry secured his release in March.

In May, the regional court in Noginsk, near Moscow, ruled in Gesse's favour, finding him not guilty of draft evasion on the grounds that his argument for alternative service was constitutionally enshrined, but the prosecution appealed.

The debate over conscription here is heating up: during the presidential election campaign President Boris Yeltsin pledged that Russia would move to a professional army by the early years of the next century.

Last month the popular daily, Argumenty i Fakty, ran a story on 50 ways to avoid conscription. Stomach ulcers, asthma and diabetes are among 50 notifiable diseases which may excuse young men from joining the 200,000 conscripts called up each year.

Once students have formally registered at university they are safe from conscription. The Gesse ruling gives new hope to the estimated 400 conscientious objectors who each year request alternative service and offers a possible opening for those 25,000 conscripts who annually evade the draft simply by dropping out of sight - or going overseas to study.

For students approaching graduation the prospect of a year in the army is the single most troubling question of their future.

One languages student in Irkutsk, Siberia, said: "I'm hoping to go to France for a year after graduation, not only to improve my language, but to avoid military service. For us it's the only way to escape the army. Nobody wants to serve in the army, even if it is only for a year and as an officer."

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