Russians evade mid-study draft

March 11, 2005

A Russian court has upheld an action by students fighting army conscription halfway through their university studies.

The 13 students from Tula State University were called up by the draft board on completion of the first three years of two-tier baccalaureate and masters degrees.

The army argued that the students had no right to further deferment of military service - obligatory for eligible Russian men aged 18 to - because their bachelors degrees represented the conclusion of university studies.

The students argued that they had all committed to study for a further 18 months to achieve their masters degrees.

Tula, one of the more progressive of Russia's provincial universities, has offered European-style two-tier degrees to its undergraduates since 1992.

Students at most Russian universities still take five-year diplomas.

The ruling came in February after three months of struggle with military prosecutors, who insisted that the students must serve.

"The draft board will continue to fight on, so our court victory leaves us not with a sense of satisfaction but weariness," Andrei Ivanov, one of the group, told Russian daily newspaper Gazeta.

Aleksander Borisov, chairman of the lecturers' union at Tula, dubbed the court ruling "equitable".

He told The Times Higher : "We agree with the Ministry of Education that the educational process must not be interrupted. Education should come first."

Galina Kozlova, the regional court judge, said lack of clarity in Tula's course regulations was the root cause for the military's moves to conscript the students, but that the case could have been avoided if the draft board had shown more "competence".

The court decision comes at a time when fears over students' protection from military call-up are at their highest since the Afghan war of the Eighties, when university deferments were abolished for nearly a decade.

The war in Chechnya, brutal treatment by other soldiers and the accidental deaths of 3,000 conscripts a year have led to massive draft dodging and a trade in illicit medical exemption certificates.

Moves by Sergei Ivanov, the Defence Minister, to scrap student deferment caused such an outcry earlier this year - coinciding with demonstrations by pensioners over lost state benefits - that the Kremlin back-pedalled.

Mr Ivanov has since sent out mixed signals, telling students their deferment is safe for at least the next 12 months, while suggesting to the military that cases can be considered individually.

The army is pressing for an end to student deferment because it cannot call up enough suitable men. Most conscripts come from poor rural regions, and many are neither physically nor mentally fit enough for service.

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